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What a pleasure to welcome the new year with "novella-ist" Jim Harrison. A fine Zen-inspired poet and robust novelist who has published 25 volumes to date, Harrison writes his best in the novella form, beginning with the 1979 three-gem collection "Legends of the Fall." A novella is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel -- for Harrison, usually about 100 pages, the perfect length for his rangy and vigorous first-person storytelling. Any longer and he sometimes loses control and even ardent fans like me struggle in the wilderness thicket of his overactive mind.
His latest three-novella collection, "The Farmer's Daughter," is two parts familiar triumph, one part familiar hyperventilation, with "The Games of Night" growing repetitive and even tedious.
When Harrison worked in Hollywood, writing screenplays, a producer once told him he was hired because he wrote great characters -- quite true, although his plots sometimes also grab readers by the throat. In the title novella, "The Farmer's Daughter," we meet another of Harrison's preternaturally strong female protagonists. Sarah grows up in rural Montana learning to shoot, later finding good reason to shoot at a man. We grow up with her, suffering through her adolescent explorations with men and boys. We easily root for her on her journey of love and revenge.
In "Brown Dog Redux," Harrison's recurring trickster character takes us on yet another delightfully wacky romp through the north country of the United States and Canada. Squat and dark-skinned like Harrison, of half native heritage, Brown Dog instinctively games any system he encounters to opportunistically consume what his body desires -- never money, always women, drink, food and solitude in woods uncluttered by other human visitors. Although few women are safe from his amorous appetites, he is sweetly devoted to his "adopted" daughter Berry, who suffers symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome and, at 10 years old, makes only bird sounds. She is as feral as Brown Dog, without the priapic, gourmand bent.
"The Games of Night," the one disappointment of the trio, begins wonderfully with a young man's initiation into manhood on a trip to Mexico with friends of his "nitwit" dyslexic ornithologist father. But after he is stabbed by a hummingbird and bitten by a wolf pup during a lightning storm and further sexually initiated by an older woman, the story deteriorates with his dire medical condition into a series of over-amped wanderings literally howling at the moon. The story is full of silver nuggets of Harrison's moonlit wisdom that makes it worth the sloggy trip, but in the end an obsessive half-man, half-animal becomes too much to live with.
James Lenfestey is a Minneapolis-based poet and writer.