The River Swimmer – Jim Harrison

The river swimmerThe River Swimmer

by Jim Harrison

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Available 1/8/2013

Harrison’s latest consists of two novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and the title story. In The Land of Unlikeness, Clive, a sixty-something, cultured art appraiser who resides in a condo in New York when he isn’t rubbing elbows and taking the measure of the art of the rich and famous, is summoned home to a small farming community in Northern Michigan in order to care for his elderly mother while his sheltered younger sister, goes on her first European vacation. The secluded community of Reed City hasn’t changed much, and Clive is flooded with memories and a feeling of warped time. Clive’s mother still seasons bland meals with salt and pepper only (any further seasoning is a sign of weakness), the small-town ‘girl next door’ who broke Clive’s heart while they were in their teens is still around when she’s not working her Grand Rapids grocery store job, and she’s still a heart breaker. Clive gave up painting twenty years before, but being home is changing his perspective, and he’s starting to feel a yearning to pick up a brush. Clive thought he was happy with his life in New York, but relationships with his loved ones are all undernourished and the longer he views the natural world through the glass panes of the second-story door of his mother’s house that doesn’t lead to anywhere, the more he wonders which path to the future is the right one.

The River Swimmer is a bit more of a folktale with just a hint of magic realism, but lots of references to real local places including Schuler Books, a wonderful, locally-owned retreat for the bookish in Grand Rapids. The main character, Thad, a strong and determined lad with a one (well, maybe two) track mind, loves swimming more than anything else in the world. The story follows him on his journey from a baby whose caretakers harness him to keep him from drowning because they cannot keep him out of the water, to a young man as he swims through the rivers of Michigan and the Great Lakes, including a stint from Muskegon to Chicago, and the Rhone and Seine rivers in Paris, and also as he swims through the hearts and minds of several women around him: caretakers, lovers, and friends.

In both stories, the main characters are wrestling with their present choices and with a decision about what path they will choose for the future. In all Harrison’s stories, nature is described in the most beautiful language, water and colors are symbolic, women and yearning are in abundance, and the characters are beautifully flawed.

Using punctuation discriminately in a style that isn’t stream of consciousness but isn’t entirely structured either, Harrison knows how to put real live people down on paper, flailing around, doing and thinking  things one can imagine their own f*cked up friends or self doing or thinking. The characters and situations are utterly relatable and it’s such a comfort to read a story in which you recognize the people and actions as genuine and real. Not to mention the wonderful familiarity of the place names for this Michigan resident.  My first Harrison book was A Woman Lit By Fireflies, three novellas published in 1990, and Brown Dog – a character introduced in one of those novellas whose story continues in later novellas – is still my favorite. Clive’s story in this book is a close second. Harrison has added another set of stories to a growing library of fine, quality work. Just a taste of the incredible language, from the last paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Land of Unlikeness: “He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.” What a lovely compromise of language with Harrison at the helm. I’ve never read a book by Jim Harrison that didn’t touch my heart.-Kimberly Frantz

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