1. Books

Review: Jim Harrison tells tales of manhood and magic in 'The River Swimmer'

Published Jan. 1, 2013

Jim Harrison's new book, The River Swimmer, is a pair of novellas, two very different tales of manhood and magic.

In one, an aging former artist unexpectedly rediscovers the beauty he once saw in the world. In the other, a young man sees things no one else does and feels his ties to the world around him slipping loose. As he has in 17 previous works of fiction, including Legends of the Fall and True North, Harrison addresses with insight and humor such themes as the human relationship to the natural world, the powers of sexuality and violence, the uses of art, the line between sanity and madness, and the shadow of mortality.

The first novella, The Land of Unlikeness, is the story of Clive, who at 60 travels from his Manhattan apartment to the rural Michigan home of his boyhood to care for his mother while his sister takes a vacation.

As a boy, Clive was passionate about art, and as a young man pursued painting as a career. "In his own twenties," he recalls wryly, "he had thought overmuch about not compromising when no one was asking him to compromise."

But a divorce from a rich wife so dismayed him that "he had quit being a painter and had become an art history professor, an emissary, appraiser, and cultural handyman."

Now Clive has few illusions about the commercialization of fine art and his role in it. "In big cities and in university centers in the hinterlands the air guitarists are forever making decisions on who has become passe. …

"He had been out in the parking lot playing air guitar. He hadn't made the cut."

Clive makes good money, travels around the world and goes to parties where Tommy Hilfiger compliments him on his wardrobe, but he's estranged from his only daughter and disgruntled after the leader of "a group called the Art Tarts" flings paint on his favorite suit in protest during one of his lectures. Back in Michigan, he finds that his mother needs him mainly to accompany her on her avid birdwatching forays, which leaves him time to recall his younger self.

Some of what Clive rediscovers in that familiar landscape is predictable, like the former girlfriend still living down the road and still capable of driving him mildly crazy. He wonders "how memories could resume so much energy as if they were waiting in the landscape, waiting to attack."

But he also, to his considerable surprise, begins to feel once again the itch to paint and, even more important, the gift of seeing things around him in new ways — a gift that transports him back to childhood.

A beveled window frame he used to peer through as a boy because he was enthralled by how it broke the woods and fields into strange shapes once again draws his eye. He orders a giant box of crayons and waits impatiently for their delivery. When his mother returns from the local grocer, she hands him a package: "He smelled the brown paper wrapper. It was Ralph's homemade pickled bologna, scarcely Proust's madeleine but then he was scarcely Proust."

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"Second childhood" is often a pejorative term, but for Clive it's a happy transformation. As the novella ends, he is seeing "a shade of green on a moss-colored log he had never seen before."

The Land of Unlikeness paints a picture of emotional magic in realistic terms, but in the other novella Harrison ventures into magic realism with the surreal story of Thad, the river swimmer of the title.

We know we are in the territory of fable with the novella's first sentences: "Theirs was a small farm in the middle of an island in a large river. … There was a lone old maiden Indian woman living there called Tooth because rather than having two prominent front teeth she had one very large one."

Thad's defining trait is apparent from childhood: "Such was his love of water he was always wet even in winter." He is so obsessed with swimming in a spring pool near the farmhouse that Tooth, who takes care of him, puts him in a harness and leashes him to a stake so she can "haul him screaming to the surface" if he stays under too long.

By the time he is 17, Thad is a prodigious swimmer, stroking across lakes and down rivers as another teenage boy might drive across town. As utterly at home as he is in the water, Thad is at odds with the world above its surface. He struggles to imagine an adult life for himself: "If only there was a college with an oceanography program on the banks of a big beautiful river."

He also struggles with sex and its consequences. When he meets a girl he has been forbidden to see, her father — the ironically named Friendly Frank — beats him brutally, and Thad retaliates, nearly killing him.

Thad flees, swimming from Upper Peninsula Michigan to Chicago in a couple of days (told you this was a fairy tale). Along the way he gets involved with another young woman whose father wants to be his protector, at the price of controlling his life.

Harrison couches Thad's bizarre adventures in realistic details — cellphones, airplanes, X-rays. But then there's Thad's deepest secret. After being beaten by Friendly Frank, he swam to a familiar lagoon off the river near his home and "received the shock of his life": a vision of a school of water babies, aquatic creatures with infant human faces, which Tooth tells him are the spirits of dead children.

After Chicago, Thad travels to Europe, then returns home, with those water babies haunting him and wonderful and terrible things happening along the way.

Water is a rich and complex metaphor in The River Swimmer; for Thad it is liberation and purification, life and death, restoration and, perhaps, destruction. The novella's style differs markedly from that of The Land of Unlikeness. Veering off into tangents and sliding around logical connections, the narrative reflects Thad's emotional disintegration as he faces adulthood.

For him, magic may not be enough — or it may be too much. Humans, he thinks, "are ill-prepared for the miraculous. It's too much of a jolt and the human soul is not spacious enough to deal with it. What happens when we sense and see the eternal in the ordinary present? What should he do about the water babies? Absolutely nothing."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.


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