Jim Harrison has just arrived at his winter home near the tiny town of Patagonia, Ariz., and he's delighted at the news that motion-activated cameras have repeatedly photographed a jaguar living in the Santa Rita Mountains just north of his place.
"It's grand," he growls over the phone in a voice that sounds like boots on a gravel road. "You don't mess with those guys."
Harrison's latest book features a less exotic, but just as fascinating, kind of beast. Brown Dog collects all five of his rollicking comic novellas, published separately over 23 years, about an utterly unambitious, hopelessly romantic denizen of Michigan's still-wild Upper Peninsula (Harrison's own native ground). Brown Dog, a middle-aged guy of Chippewa-Finnish heritage who's always broke and almost always cheerful about it, got that canine nickname when he was 9 years old from the mother of the little girl he had his first crush on, who shooed him out of the yard like a stray hound.
Harrison, who will turn 76 on Wednesday, has published 18 previous books of fiction, 13 collections of poetry, three nonfiction books and a children's book. He has also written many essays and reviews, a long-running column on food for Esquire and screenplays. Several of his books have been made into films, the best known of which is Legends of the Fall (1994).
Brown Dog, in addition to the title novella, includes The Seven-Ounce Man, Westward Ho, The Summer He Didn't Die and Brown Dog Redux. The collection also adds a previously unpublished sixth novella, He Dog. It's a road trip from Michigan to Montana (Harrison's summer home) and back that gives B.D., as he's often called, a happy ending of sorts and fills in some of the blanks in his past. "I was going to reveal more of his background," Harrison says, "but I thought the mystery was appropriate for the hero."
Brown Dog is very much an American hero — not the macho blowhard kind but the picaresque variety, a la Huck Finn, if Huck were middle-aged and had a really busy sex life. "I wasn't conscious of it at the time" he first wrote about the character, Harrison says of the parallels to Huck, "but I can't deny it. B.D. is an escape artist," always lighting out for the territory when anyone tries to civilize him.
"Also, I wanted to write about the adverse effects of money. With money, you can't be free. He just needs a six-pack and something to eat and he's okay. He doesn't even have to read Forbes."
Brown Dog is also "a bit of an alter ego," Harrison says. "He just emerged from life." One shared trait is Brown Dog's fascination with and comfort in the natural world — he observes animals as closely as he does humans, and sometimes finds them easier to communicate with.
"I was in the Yucatan with a friend of mine who has lived there for 30 winters," Harrison says. "He speaks Mayan. An old jefe there saw me patting all the vicious guard dogs, which were moseying up to me.
"The old chief asked a question, and my friend said, 'You have to take this question seriously. He wants to know if you're part dog.' They believe such things are possible.
"So I said, just a little, on my mother's side."
Harrison speaks admiringly of the work ethic of his yellow Labrador retriever, Zilpha, who accompanies his bird-hunting forays. "I almost always have female dogs. My brother had a standard poodle named Ralph. He died — he jumped over a wall without knowing what was on the other side. He fell a long way.
"That's a very male thing to do. Any female would peer over it first."
Brown Dog, Harrison says, is "the typical roaming, not brilliant male. But he's not a complainer. It's really bad form in the Upper Peninsula to complain about a hangover. If you can afford to get drunk you have nothing to complain about."
Harrison's domestic arrangements are more stable than Brown Dog's — he and his wife, Linda, have been married for 52 years. Nor does he share Brown Dog's laissez-faire attitude about work. Harrison has already finished his next novel, which brings back Sunderson, a retired cop who was the main character in The Great Leader (2011). "He gives me a way to comment on age, which nobody much talks about."
"Writing a novel is stunningly exhausting at my age," he says, so now he's working on a novella about a girl called Eggs, "because she's fascinated with chickens. You know, they're very soothing." He also has another collection of poems ready: "I write poetry every morning, to start the day."
And he's working on another book with a close friend, celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali. "It's called The Track of the Genuine. We're covering the country geographically. We've made some progress, but he's rather busy running 12 restaurants, and I'm writing novels.
"I may have PTSD from writing so much, but my explanation is I don't know what else to do."
Even with six novellas about him, which in combination read like a novel, Harrison doesn't think he's done writing about Brown Dog. He Dog ends with him happily entangled in unexpected fatherhood and about to move into a cute little cabin with gingerbread trim.
"I have to get him out of that cabin," Harrison says. "He has places to go, people to see — mostly female."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.