The River Swimmer: Novellas by Jim Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm struggling for connections between the two novellas that make up this volume. The writing itself is uniformly good; Harrison is clearly a master of the English language, and some of his passages captivate. In fact, my response to these works is more about me, the reader, than the author. In this way, I can thank Harrison for helping me know more about myself than I did before.
In the first long story/short novel, titledThe Land of Unlikeness, we are made to follow the misadventures of a middle-aged painter of fading renown as he goes back to his childhood home in rural Michigan. I agree with Harrison that "memories reside in the landscape and arise when you revisit an area." However, there was nothing heroic or interesting enough about Clive, the protagonist in question, to make me particularly care about his memories or how they made him feel or think about his life. Late in the narrative, Harrison states of Clive, "He was a man of no importance so why not paint?"
I know that this is a story about how one examines the path his life has taken up to its apex and impending decline; in fact, I know it quite personally. Unfortunately, however, I agree with Harrison's narration in that I find Clive unimportant and therefore uninteresting.
Conversely, the second piece,The River Swimmer held my attention, mostly, I think, due to a kind of magic realism that was absent from the first story. Thad is a person who cannot stay away from the water and the wonder it offers him, the true meaning it gives his life when he is swimming. He is accompanied, time and again, by his "friends," amphibious creatures called "water babies," who, according to native lore are inhabited by the souls of dead infants. They guide and love him in the dark water, and he muses on whether or not to share his discovery with the rest of the world. The core of the book is this division between the real and the miraculous. In my favorite line in the book, Harrison writes, "It seemed comic to [Thad] that people desire miracles but when they get them it adds an extremely confusing element to life. Maybe Lazarus didn't want to come back to life."
The River Swimmer is all about this struggle we hold; on the one hand, we desire a quiet, comfortable life. As humans, however, it is in our nature to crave the transcendent, the magical, the divine. Again, my thanks to Jim Harrison for reminding me that I, too, crave this magic, especially in the fiction that moves me in any "real" sense.
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