In a recent New Yorker magazine podcast, writers Karen Russell and Junot Díaz discussed distinctions between short stories and novels. They noted that the short story is usually a small fragment — a precisely cut gem — with fewer situations and conflicts, whereas the novel covers wider ground and time (and can afford to be a little sloppier) and more often than not definitively concludes a narrative.
And then there’s the novella, somewhere in between.
For the past 23 years, the great American author Jim Harrison has been writing lively novellas with the main character of Brown Dog. The first appearance of this unforgettable scamp from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this maybe-Indian, this man who loves fishing and peppermint schnapps almost as much as he loves women and sex, was in Harrison’s 1990 collection, “The Woman Lit by Fireflies.” Since then, four more Brown Dog novellas have been published and now with this book, all the Brown Dog works are gathered together for the first time, along with a new novella, “He Dog.”
Brown Dog, a k a B.D., is a big-hearted rascal who is always getting into deep trouble with the ladies, and often with the law. We first encounter him when he’s in his late 40s and he’s salvage diving in the cold waters of Lake Superior. During this adventure in which illegal activities occur, B.D., as is typical of him, goes to a bar for a nightcap, and as is so often the case with this sweet guy, he realizes that “This turned out to be the key mistake of the many I made that cursed day.”
Harrison’s writing style perfectly matches the rambling, sloppy nature of B.D.; we’re always hearing some story from B.D.’s past, an aside that might explain his current predicament or perhaps why he shouldn’t have “made the old-trousers-around-the-ankle mistake” again. Harrison also surrounds B.D. with memorable characters, including his aging Uncle Delmore, who is both generous and stingy to his only nephew; Rose, B.D.’s childhood sweetheart, who “was born mean, captious, sullen, with occasional small dirty windows of charm”; and Rose’s little daughter, Berry, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, seemingly out of touch with everyone and everything, except B.D. and nature.
Jim Harrison’s narrative is strong and spirited, and there is some great storytelling here (the fight scene in “The Seven Ounce Man” is unparalleled in the world of literary barroom brawls). Still, there is a lot of Brown Dog in this collection, so it might be best to read these novellas singly, putting a little space between B.D.’s antics; absorbing the recipes of wonderful wild meals that B.D. constructs; and reflecting on how this rough yet kind and loving mongrel of a man works his way though a difficult life, discovering eventually what it is he wants and in the end how, surprisingly, it all works out for him and the people he loves.
Jim Carmin is a book critic in Portland, Ore.