Living as if your life mattered

Jim Harrison offers a look at a family grounded in space and time

Review Novel

February 04, 2007|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Returning to Earth

By Jim Harrison

Grove Press / 280 pages / $24

Jim Harrison presents American readers with an alternative history. In his work, people live as if their deaths mattered, not like frat boys on a bender; they seem capable of thinking one or two generations ahead. He offers - take it or leave it - a roomy definition of integrity endlessly open to interpretation and based on relationships with the earth, with one's family, with oneself. Locating ourselves in the four directions, in the march of ancestors, in the web of species, Harrison means to tell us, might help us feel safer, which would make us kinder and less destructive.

William Faulkner, a writer Harrison admires and with whom he is often compared, sought to get at something similar, to identify a place to which we might return. Like him, Harrison has, in much of his fiction, practiced writing in voices, which forces an author to stretch to the breaking point outside his own skin. It also makes for a true-to-life vulnerability, a wobbliness that Harrison, who has battled depression all his life, understands and respects.

It's no secret that the death of Harrison's beloved father and his 19-year-old sister when he was 22 not only helped him decide to be a writer but also became a kind of initiating incident, an event he replays throughout his work, trying to get it right, to understand it, to do and undo it. "If people you love are going to be taken from you," he declared in a 2002 interview, "why compromise?"

In Harrison's ninth novel, Returning to Earth - he has also written five collections of novellas and eight volumes of poetry, as well as a memoir and a children's book - Donald, age 45, is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. Like the author, Donald is what most people would call a "bear of a man" - big, full of various physical and spiritual appetites. He is, says his wife, Cynthia, "the most purely physical person I've ever met in my life." The first part of the novel is written in Donald's voice, with interjections from Cynthia. Here, the character lines up his ancestors and describes their journeys (beginning in 1871) into Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where most of Harrison's work takes place. With great reticence, Donald also touches on his religious beliefs, inspired by the Anishnabeg, Cree, Chippewa and Ojibwa blood in his family. He describes a retreat he took in the wilderness for three days without food or water. There he was visited by a bear and a flock of ravens. He recalls watching an old raven dying while falling "slowly down through the branches of a hemlock tree over a period of two hours, grabbing hold of a branch now and then with his or her last strength, while around the bird about three dozen of his family were whirling. I heard the soft sound when he finally hit the ground."

Donald's wish is that his family drive him to Canada, near the place he had his retreat, inject him with a cocktail of Nembutal, phenobarbital and Dilantin, and bury him naked in the earth. He will leave behind his wife and two grown children, Herald and Clare, as well as an extended family that includes Cynthia's brother David, David's ex-wife Polly, her children K. and Rachel and his father's cousin Flower, who lives in the woods closest to the old Indian ways. This is the kind of family that meets at least once a year in a cabin in the wilderness beloved by all, a family with cousins who fly across the country to save one another from bad relationships and prison. They are each other's points of reference, and Donald is their vital core.

K., Cynthia and David narrate the other three parts of Returning to Earth, which is the story of Donald's death and its aftermath. Each voice has its Joycean digressions and obsessions. Cynthia is a strong, honest woman whose clear-eyed descriptions of people and things make the most mundane aspects of daily life resonate with significance and depth. K., in his 20s, wears a mohawk and is in love with both his cousin Clare and her mother. It is in his understated voice that Harrison describes Donald's final moments. David, perhaps the least grounded figure in the novel, is the family historian, the one who knows the most about the people of the Upper Peninsula. His circular journey has taken him to Mexico, where he falls in love with the woman his father - whom Donald describes as "an awful man in so many ways that just thinking about him confuses you" - raped when she was 12.

Although these characters share a common heritage and interests, they remain so distinct, so memorable, that you would recognize their voices in a crowded bar, even if you had your back to them. As for the places they love and inhabit, the chokecherry and dogwood and porcupine-quill baskets and feathers and stones - well, let's just say that all five senses were used to re-create them.

Every so often, Harrison's views on art and literature poke up through this fertile ground, mostly in David's voice. He admires Wallace Stevens, "whose poems like good paintings made me want to live inside them," and he is "obsessed with how fragile art, literature, love, and music, even the natural world are in the presence of severe illness and inevitable death." Indeed, here we have the issue at the center of the novel, the irreducible conundrum: What matters after life is stripped away? "Back to being well-read and educated," Cynthia notes, worried over her daughter's reaction to Donald's dying. "What does it offer us when someone we love dies?"

That is the question. It is not an easy question and it is the question we most often look away from, in a culture swept up in the distractions of the everyday. Be kind, Harrison might say by way of a sideways answer. Be true and be kind.

Susan Salter Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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