Book Review: 'The River Swimmer,' by Jim Harrison


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Critically acclaimed author Jim Harrison is renowned for his many works of fiction (Julip, Legends of the Fall), nonfiction, poetry, essays, and novellas. With work published in 27 languages, Harrison has become an American literary icon, often compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. A native of Grayling, Harrison returns to northern Michigan for the setting of his novellas in his latest release, The River Swimmer (Grove Press, $25).

In The Land of Unlikeness, 60-year-old Clive reluctantly returns to his rural boyhood home to take care of his ornery, sight-impaired mother. As an art history academic, Clive has lectured throughout Europe, acquiring affectations and a taste for the exorbitant along the way.

Now, 20 years divorced and estranged from his only daughter, the well-heeled, well-traveled professor finds himself residing in his old, second-story bedroom. Mulling over his mortality and the long-lived lifestyle he knows he can no longer emotionally afford, Clive explores the familiar landscape of his childhood, reawakening his silenced dream of becoming a painter.

“Memories reside in the landscape and arise when you revisit an area,” notes Clive. As he traverses old paths and outposts, Clive reflects on a life of personal gain chosen over one of pure passion. However, in letting the endless, familiar rhythms of nature overtake him, Clive is called back to his true self and is finally home.

While The Land of Unlikeness reflects on a life gone by, Harrison’s second novella, The River Swimmer, is framed by a life not yet lived. Thad, a high-school farm boy drawn to water, swims from upper Michigan to Chicago after a “confusingly violent” altercation. Reluctantly, Thad is swept into the clashing currents of man versus man and longs to return to the waters that sustain him.

Raised with the mythical stories of his Indian caretaker, Thad is “quite spiritual in an eccentric way.” As his relationships begin to draw him farther from home, Thad is called back from his journeys by the silent, mystical, wide-eyed water babies hovering under the surface of the lagoon near his parents’ farm.

Thad seeks simplicity and is loath to the seductions of money and consumption that begin to surround him. A virtual fish out of water, Thad makes his way home to the love of his family and the magic of the water spirits.

In The River Swimmer, Harrison holds close to the earth, kneading questions of impermanence into the landscape of his work. Harrison’s thoughts and themes anchor his novellas to each other, and to that of the broader natural world.

We always think we have enough, of course, until we think we don’t, and Harrison’s true gift is in his message: It’s nature’s overwhelming lack of ego that so illuminates the inflammation of our own.

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