Monday, March 18, 2013

Harrison and Crace in top form in new works

New books from two writers I greatly enjoy.

Book 35: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

Recently, in a post on Goodreads, a woman expressed her dislike for Jim Harrison's writing. She couldn't understand his appeal as a novelist.

And that I understand. Harrison, an important American writer with an impressive body of work, isn't to every reader's taste.

I started reading Harrison more than two decades ago.  He was writing a monthly column for Esquire.  It was about hunting and fishing, food and the outdoor life. I wasn't interested in hunting and fishing -- I'm still not -- but something in Harrison's work spoke to me. It wasn't long before I started reading his novels, novellas, poetry and short stories. I haven't stopped yet.

The River Swimmer is comprised of two novellas that are exactly the sort of stories I have come to expect from Harrison.  He has always been a writer attempting to define the role of men in today's society. He's interested in fine food and the arts, the outdoors -- both in embracing the grandeur of nature and in subduing the wilderness, in the physicality of man and, more and more recently, mortality.

All these elements are present in the novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and The River Swimmers. 

The stories are bookends. In The Land of Unlikeness, Clive, a 60-year-old man, struggles with the physical decline brought on by aging and the failure of his youthful dreams to be a successful painter. He is tormented, too, by the nearby presence of a woman he loved and lusted after as a teenager.

The protagonist in The River Swimmer is Clive's polar opposite. Thad is still in his teens. A virile young man who attracts women like flames attract moths and who swims vast distances almost effortlessly. 

Magical realism, which appears occasionally in Harrison's work, haunts this story. There is almost a mythical quality to Thad's attraction to water and his uncanny abilities as a swimmer. He also sees strange, other-wordly creatures in the river near his home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Like Clive, Thad is contending with changes that portend a new direction in his life; something he both embraces and fears. The wealth of a rich girl who becomes his lover offers the promise of travel, education and position in society, but he fears a loss of freedom.  

Both characters are on the cusp of unsettling changes: one entering manhood and the other poised on the edge of old age.

Book 36: Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest is a tour de force by the British writer Jim Crace.  A fable about the destruction of a remote English village, it doesn't carry much of a message, but it is a highly enjoyable read.

Twin columns of smoke signal the beginning of the ruin that is to come. One column signals the arrival of three newcomers, staking their claim to a plot of land. The second arises from a fire in the Master's hayloft and stable.

That unfortunate fire is the first step in the systematic dismantling of the village, which is riven by secrets, distrust and change.

The story, which unfolds over the course of seven days, is told by Walter Thirsk. Once the Master's man, he married a village woman. Although he labored alongside the villagers for years, Walter comes to realize that he was always an outsider.

Walter is an unreliable narrator.  He presents himself in the best possible light in every account he puts forward, yet questions about his true role in the village's destruction linger.

Crace is a masterful writer.  In Harvest, his command of tone and setting, and his understanding of human nature weave a compelling tale of cruelty and self-interest.

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