FICTION: "The River Swimmer," by Jim Harrison

  • Article by: STEVE NOVAK / SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 3:48 PM

In these two novellas, a man's return to his hometown stirs memories of youthful desires, and a talented swimmer tries to find stability on dry land.

THE RIVER SWIMMER by: Jim Harrison.

Ever since writing "Legends of the Fall" 30 years ago, Jim Harrison has produced a steady stream of novellas demonstrating what a writer can do in approximately 100 pages. The trick to a good novella is to give the same richness of story, action and characters as one finds in a full-length novel. At its best, it is a novel shorn of fat, full of story.

The 76-year-old Harrison now gives the reader a pair of new novellas in "The River Swimmer." The publication follows his recent habit of alternating novels with novellas; in 2011, his novel, "The Great Leader," about an aging policeman obsessed with arresting a cult leader, followed "The Farmer's Daughter," a series of three novellas.

The first of these new novellas, "The Land of Unlikeness," contains themes and elements that longtime readers of Harrison will recognize: failed marriage, estranged family, rural life vs. city, career-choice regrets, old girlfriends, food and drink aplenty.

Clive, an art historian, is visiting his aging mother in northern Michigan. The return to his boyhood home triggers memories of 60 years of events that mapped out his life. It is much like the native American Hopi lore of the life journey being a full circle: Clive has returned to his origins.

Harrison portrays Clive as regretful but not resigned. His youthful aspiration to become a famous painter has been beaten like a piece of molten metal into its present, compromised shape -- a career academic and an art consultant. However, his return home turns back the clock enough for him to consider the road not taken.

Harrison deftly depicts how a meeting with an old girlfriend, an attempt to make peace with his estranged daughter, as well as rediscovering the simple joy of sketching with oils all gradually change Clive.

In the second novella, "The River Swimmer," Harrison travels somewhere between myth and magic in the story of a teenager endowed with the gift of long-distance swimming.

Thad is the swimmer, an 18-year-old from a small Michigan town. On land, any number of family problems await him; whenever he swims, his constant strokes propel him past all problems and worry.

In Harrison's tale, Thad becomes a Daedalus, but with a different escape route. Instead of flying above the fray on wax wings, Thad swims away from the tumult facing him on land. He is, in his own private medium, safe and untouchable. "There was a world out there to swim through," he decides, when vexed with another problem.

There is a sense that in Thad, Harrison is presenting the other end of the time spectrum from the character of Clive. In the first novella, Harrison demonstrates that age and experience can allow for change and growth. But young Thad is so mired in his woes that he only sees one avenue of escape.

Steve Novak is a freelance journalist and critic in Cleveland.

  • THE RIVER SWIMMER

    By: Jim Harrison.

    Publisher: Grove Press, 198 pages, $25.

    Review: Harrison, now 76, remains strong and adept at condensing full stories into powerful novellas.

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