January 2014

Walter Biggins

fiction

Brown Dog: Novellas by Jim Harrison

In Brown Dog, Jim Harrison's language barrels through propriety, language tumbling and splashing like an unruly river cutting through the landscape. That's a mode that offers a lot of surprise -- philosophical rumination running headlong into sloppy sex, which then runs into a riff on gourmet food or the wonders of nature on a cold northern Minnesota night. But it's also a mode that gets wearying after a while, and hard to sustain over the course of a full-length novel. And, though he considered himself primarily a poet for a good chunk of his career, strict meter and poetic forms are often too constraining for Harrison. I always feel like his poems have too many ideas crammed into them, and not enough of them have been worked out beforehand.

So, the novella's his best form, the one that offers him room -- but just enough -- to garrulously tell us of his characters' lusts, crazy appetites, and wild ramblings. Those characters, like the sentences that define them, do ramble on. Harrison has kept the flame of the weird and woolly novella form going, in seven collections starting with 1979's Legends of the Fall. Most of these collections have featured at least one new adventure about Brown Dog (B.D. for short), a maybe-Anishinabe (Ojibway) Native American eking out a subsistence life in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He cuts pulpwood, fishes, hunts, scavenges, does fix-up repair, and generally lives off his hands in ways that most, say, writers do not. In this way, and others, B.D. seems like a fantasy version of what Harrison (a Michigan native who more or less left the U.P. of his childhood) could have been. B.D. fights, fucks, frolics, and gushes over with emotion. Vividly conveyed, B.D. is a load of fun to spend my time with, even if I read between my fingers while shaking my head at his latest stumble into failure. An interesting guy, he's a man's man in a lot of ways but he's no paragon of machismo, nor does he want to be. One running joke through the novella is that B.D. manages to slip into so many women's arms and between their legs because he's avidly not like the men these women usually run into. Without much access to TV, the internet, or fashion magazines, B.D. is naively unaware of damaging masculine ideals.

In The Seven-Ounce Man, B.D. uses his wiles to avoid a macho fistfight, and allows Harrison to flip the bird at amped-up dick-measuring. Here, two guys are looking for Brown Dog because he's been sleeping with their women, basically challenging him to a High Noon battle in the Buckhorn, a local bar:

About eight o'clock in comes this tall, wiry guy dressed up like he was God's own commando. He was sort of dancing on the balls of his feet as his eyes swept the bar. He had to be Travis as Fred was a lot thicker when I saw him on Doris's porch and in the rearview mirror of my van. It was then it came to me that these guys wouldn't exactly know what I looked like. Marcelle must have given him a general description because he sidles up and asks if my name happens to be B.D. I naturally say no, but B.D. is a friend of mine and is due any moment because we got a pool game coming up. I estimated Travis to be only about one-eighty but his arms were made up of cables. He orders a drink next to me and Delmore, looks around, and heads to the toilet.

Just at the moment Travis goes to the toilet (Bucks and Does at the Buckhorn) in comes Fred, half drunk with his eyes boiling red, his neck real thick like the football players on TV. To be frank, I'd rather fight a bulldozer. The bar is silent except the jukebox which is playing George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Again, he comes up to me and asks if I'm B.D. and Delmore interrupts and says what I was about to say, that B.D. is in the pisser. Fred starts jumping up and down to juice himself up, then heads toward the corner just as Travis comes out. Fred looks back at Delmore for a split second and Delmore nods yes, then they were engaged in mortal combat.

It's not that Brown Dog is without the vices common to manhood -- again, the barfight gets started because of his fooling around. It's just that, while Brown Dog is not a deep thinker, he's also no simpleton or dummy. Rather, his problem is that he largely thinks with his belly and his cock, and those two "brains" get him into all kinds of trouble. He emerges from each novella relatively unscathed but not necessarily any wiser, which means more trouble is always around the corner.

Brown Dog, Harrison's eighth novella collection, brings together all five B.D. stories, and adds a new one at the end. Seeing them in one place, I realize what a terrific, decades-long character study Harrison has created. Nestled between other novellas, the B.D. adventures have sometimes looked -- no matter how entertaining, breathless, and sex-crazed -- formless and rustling, a force of nature in search of an appropriate container. Together, though, the structure, running gags, and narrative threads become clearer. Characters mentioned in passing in a 1990 novella become critical in a novella published a decade later. B.D.'s allegiance to bears, as talismans of spiritual guidance and good-luck omens, weaves through the whole thing. An interesting meta-idea also runs through -- though we know so much about B.D.'s actions and interior life, much of his identity remains a mystery to the reader and to Brown Dog alike.

In Westward Ho, the third B.D. novella, the beauty of his mystery becomes clear, right at the adventure's end. By this point, B.D. has traveled to Los Angeles to retrieve a precious bearskin stolen from him (long story) and is now returning, bearskin in hand, to his beloved and much-missed Upper Peninsula. His uncle Delmore, who gave him the bearskin in the first place, is driving:

B.D. sank deeper in his bearskin and Delmore opened a beer and dribbled some on his lips. B.D. fumbled for the door, got out and fell to his knees, got up and took the can of beer from Delmore. He drank deeply, blinking his eyes at the landscape, rubbing his stocking feet on the soft green grass, drained the beer and handed the can to Delmore, then half-stumbled down through a grove of poplar, cedar, and birch to the lake where he knelt in the muddy reeds and rinsed his face in the cold water. On the way back up the hill he took a longer route through the woods, half-dancing through the trees like a circus bear just learning his ungainly steps, slapping at the trees and yelling a few nonsense syllables, dancing back to the picnic table where he popped another beer and picked up his Spam sandwich, looking out at late spring's deep pastel green with the deepest thanks possible.

There's so much motion in those cascading and rhythmic sentences that it's startling, on rereading that passage, to realize how much we still don't know about Brown Dog. His gratitude for, and reverence of, nature is obvious; so is his longing for the region. But there's also something wonderfully unknowable about his slapping those trees and bellowing, something restless and alien in him that Harrison allows us to observe without the need for fully understanding.

I'm not sure that, in six novellas, that we ever learn B.D.'s actual name -- Brown Dog is a nickname bestowed on him, initially, as a joke -- or if he's even an actual Native American. His identity seems so fully fleshed out on the page but ultimately major chunks of him are as clouded over as Lake Michigan on a winter's day. For all of Harrison's detailed overindulgences into sexual exploits, huge meals, drinking bouts, bar brawls, Hollywood misadventures, and multi-day wilderness hikes, his character seems ultimately less like a living legend than just a small, mysterious, utterly ordinary human being. For all his picaresque adventures and Harrison's sometimes overly convoluted contrivances, Brown Dog never rises above poverty level, never truly gets the girl (though he makes love with plenty of them), and never gets to a point where he's not scrambling for work.

Work -- hardscrabble or sedate, physical or mental, in joy or in drudgery -- is central to Brown Dog. Through this indelible protagonist, Harrison shows the ways in which local governments, charities, neighbors, and tribal associations operate on people, how they work for or against our souls. Brown Dog, who doesn't have a Social Security Number, nevertheless gets tied up in red tape, and is always ending up in beige government offices. He's a classic odd-jobber, like the handyman who mows my yards, cleans my gutters, and rakes my leaves. Harrison's neat trick is to make this guy, so often considered a Native American "statistic" and a working-class "number," live a life of broad pleasures, big adventures, and even bigger embraces. Brown Dog's dynamism compels us, and it's clear that he's living a relatively happy life on his own terms despite -- or maybe because -- he's poor and mostly invisible to the larger system of American capitalism.

Brown Dog is, thus, a rich creation, full of everyday annoyances but also mystery and wonder. Harrison's attempts to write big American novel after big American novel have mostly been middling failures, both too ambitious and too ungainly to pull through. Returning to Earth is perhaps a significant exception but even it is shaped as four linked novellas, each told by a different related character.) Brown Dog, though, shows that maybe he's created his masterpiece novel after all, in trickling, serialized bits over the last two decades.

Brown Dog: Novellas by Jim Harrison
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802120113
448 pages