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Review: Novellas suit Jim Harrison; 'The Farmer's Daughter' shows why

I n The Farmer's Daughter, Jim Harrison writes of the consequences of disaster and desire in the lives of three very different people: a fierce girl growing up on a Montana ranch, a quixotic American Indian with lusty appetites, and a refined, wealthy and thoughtful fellow who happens to be a werewolf. • This is Harrison's sixth collection of novellas, each collection composed of three short works of fiction. I love his novels and his poetry, but the novella may be his finest form, expansive enough for his astoundingly wide-ranging mind, compressed enough for his poet's intensity.

The wonderful novellas of The Farmer's Daughter are not linked by character or setting, although Harrison does lace them with shared motifs. In all three, birds sing and signify, bears make mysterious appearances, and characters listen to an apocryphal Patsy Cline version of The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me.

But each comes alive in its own world, and each has a distinctive style and voice. Harrison's ribald humor and cool intelligence course through them all, but the first novella is lyrically realistic, the second slyly comic and sweetly poignant, the third an exquisite fever dream.

The first, The Farmer's Daughter, shares its title with the collection. Despite the title's promise of old-school bawdy jokes, Sarah Holcomb is not that kind of farmer's daughter. Raised on a Montana ranch in the 1980s by a father who's an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet and a mother who's more interested in her evangelical religion than in her daughter, homeschooled Sarah feels like an outsider even before she turns, in her early teens, from a gawky kid to a tall beauty.

She has learned a quietly ferocious independence from an old rancher who became a sort of second father to her, but it's not enough to protect her when a rapist drops a knockout drug in her drink at a party. When she wakes, she's consumed by the desire for revenge, and she's a girl with the tracking skills and marksmanship to take it. Sarah finds her own unlikely route to redemption on her own terms.

All the lunkheads who dismiss Harrison as a "man's man" writer who's all about guns 'n' poses might think again if they read The Farmer's Daughter, a nuanced and convincing account of the inner life of a girl poised on the dangerous brink of puberty with no one wise to guide her. The novella's last line is a punch in the head, an almost-haiku that captures in one phrase the ironic glory of first love.

Brown Dog Redux is the fifth appearance of its title character in Harrison's novellas. Brown Dog is something of an alter ego (his name is a longtime nickname of Harrison's), an Anishinabe Indian of strong appetites and indifferent ambition who is given to surreal adventures and brushes with the law despite his cheerful nature.

In his last appearance, in the title novella of The Summer He Didn't Die (2006), Brown Dog fled his home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (Harrison's native ground) to prevent the state from putting his young stepdaughter, Berry, in an institution after her alcoholic mother was sentenced to prison. He was showing definite signs of evolving from a picaresque rascal into a responsible guy.

Brown Dog Redux finds him and Berry living in Toronto, a hospitable city but still a place that makes him itch for a trout stream and "the nothingness of the Upper Peninsula." Berry has fetal alcohol syndrome, so at 10 years old she doesn't speak — although she can imitate the calls of birds accurately enough to make them sing back to her — and is severely limited mentally.

Brown Dog, whose "inner and outer child were pretty much glued together," adores Berry but knows, as a social worker tells him, that as she reaches adolescence she'll be terribly vulnerable. It's a problem even Brown Dog can't shrug off, but he does solve it with his usual inimitable style.

The "redux" of the title is Brown Dog's and Berry's return to the United States, smuggled in aboard the tour bus of a rock group called the Thunderskins. This side of the border, Berry finds a home where she can safely be "both a dancer and a cowgirl." As for B.D., he gets his trout stream as well as the improbable girl of his dreams — and maybe more.

The narrator of The Games of Night is a brown dog of another sort. A Mexican hummingbird, lured by a lipstick kiss left on his cheek, stabs him with its beak during a camping trip when he is 12. Days later, he's bitten on the neck by a wolf cub, and more of those possibly supernatural hummingbirds buzz around his wound.

Whether because of the bird's bite or the wolf's, Samuel becomes a werewolf. Although doctors who treat his fever diagnose a "blood virus," he's soon suffering two days of "seizures" each month at the full moon.

He is no typical werewolf. Despite the seizures, he graduates from Northwestern in two years. He suffers from gout from his meat-heavy diet, he's moved to tears listening to Pavarotti, and he's handy with the literary allusions: "I had noticed that in the few days leading up to a seizure I felt an inevitable loneliness for forests, the odor of hardwoods in late fall. This was a kind of physiological sentimentality I had read in Proust in college."

This man's lycanthropy isn't just expressed in what he calls hunting. During his seizures, he also dines, drinks and has sex prodigiously, runs and swims for miles. Animal appetite of every kind takes over — not such an unfamiliar state, really; one could see that fateful bite as the first gnawing of desire.

But in between moons he is a lonely man who can't share with anyone: "My own story was scarcely tellable. I couldn't very well mention that just the other day I'd found a finger in my pocket."

His werewolf years are bookended by a love story. As a boy, the son of two unhappily married and peripatetic academics, he fell hopelessly in love with a tough little girl named Emelia. When he came home after the hummingbird's bite, her family had moved away.

Miraculously, decades later, she seeks him out, offering him the connection he has always longed for — just as he hears a diagnosis even more dire than becoming a werewolf.

Is he one really, or just an elegantly unreliable narrator who has a way with metaphor? It doesn't matter, as he says himself: "I've often wondered if we metamorphose or only stand more revealed?"

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

The Farmer's Daughter: Novellas

By Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 308 pages, $24

Review: Novellas suit Jim Harrison; 'The Farmer's Daughter' shows why 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 3:30am]

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