Imagine a fellow of 60 years old, who grew up in the Great North of that essence of winter state, Michigan. He listens to Mahler, ponders his lost art career and fusses like a churlish, neurotic mess about most everything. He bemoans his life as a $200,000 a year Ivy League professor, feeling he has squandered his life, which comes with ravaged relationships, including that with an estranged daughter.
Meet Clive, the anxiety-wracked lead character in “The Land of Unlikeliness”, the first of two stories that comprise The River Swimmer. The title of the story tells the story; virtually all of those later year Boomers reared in the blue collar north in the late ‘60s / early ‘70s grew up swigging Falstaff in sagging Detroit-built sedans, listening to the Stones and The Who on 8-track. Clive’s effete tastes would have cast him into the land or real weirdos in whatever public school he attended in search of art knowledge and a knowledge of classical music. His wine snootiness was surely a product of college, because he hailed from the land of Boone’s Farm and Annie Green Springs. In a paper bag.
It’s an almost implausible notion, this character’s tastes. But then, Clive’s self-absorbed introspection and tediousness is a hallmark of Harrison’s recent works.
The third novella of 1994’s Julip told us in first person of a 50-year old professor hit with a sexual harassment charge. In 2008’s The English Major, we read of Cliff, also 60, a high school teacher, whose wife had left him for her high school sweetheart. It was a sad book in that it was the first real pockmark on Harrison’s legacy; the book was a reminder that the author was reeling in his own years. “The Land of Unlikeliness”, then, is a return to a familiar theme, places and things that we come to expect now from the 75-year-old Harrison; northern Michigan, a lost past-it man who is trying to find himself, and a general lack of driving story line told in a compact, sometimes bright manner by a fading master.
The machinations of Clive’s withering spirit is rendered with a flourish: “Maybe it was all about delusions of integrity. In his own twenties, he had thought overmuch about not compromising when no one was asking him to compromise. At that age, a specific rigidity seemed necessary to isolate yourself from your own confusion and to invent the person you were to become.”
Throughout the story, Clive rarely moves from that spot, physically or emotionally. The sexual yearnings of Clive are embarrassing rather than telling, as he craves any and every woman in his mental and physical sphere, young and old. The Bukowski-esque images conjured by these desires elicit an awful visual.
The second story, “Water Baby”, is a faster read of fantasy and brilliant pace. The lead character is 17-year-old, Thad, who swims like the dolphins in the waterways of the Midwest, gets caught up in troubles brought about by his dick, one of which causes his father to take a beating from the local bully, and Thad ends up in the arms of a wealthy girl whose father, a private-plane flying CEO, foots the bill for fancy travel.
If it sounds unlikely, even for fantasy, this is the land of Harrison these days. So too, is the author’s far-fetched description of the workings of young Thad’s mind: “As a student of the natural world, he did not ignore the works of man who in his view was nature too, so said Shakespeare who also seemed a mystery to Thad along with his mother’s Mozart addiction.”
The best of Harrison’s past works, A Good Day to Die, The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Warlock, give him heavy credibility. They were tough books with characters that wanted to know; a ‘Nam vet with a pill problem, a failed Christian misanthrope, a poacher rustler/stalker. These works hold hands with his food writing, which includes columns for Smoke Signals and Esquire, random essays, and a collected book, The Raw and the Cooked, all written in a style that made him the Harry Crews of culinary writing.
Today, it’s the food that keeps a reader aware that he’s in Harrison’s domain, be it a lousy meal in a Ypsilanti, Michigan eatery in “The Land of Unlikeliness”, or a snack of Vacherin and cured meats in a Paris hotel room in “Water Baby”.
Harrison is one of the greats, no doubt, and at his best he walks with Hemingway and maybe even Steinbeck in short bursts. Sadly, much like the quarterback who can no longer spot the receiver downfield or the pitcher whose slider is catching too much of the plate, in The River Swimmer Harrison continues a decline, but even toward the inevitable end, his worst is often better then the rest.