The River Swimmer: Novellas

Image of The River Swimmer: Novellas
Release Date: 
January 8, 2013
Grove Press
Reviewed by: 

“Jim Harrison has created a real treat . . .”

Few well-known literary figures call themselves Jim—in print at least.

Think of all the exalted Jameses in the world of literature. How many are Jims? There is something in this, something which struck me while reading Jim Harrison’s latest pair of novellas, The River Swimmer.

A James has airs and seems like he’s trying to be taken seriously (Yes, I am sheepishly aware of my own byline. . . .). Jim is just a regular guy. James is regal, biblical. Jim is your mechanic or your plumber. When you’re reading this latest Jim Harrison, you know you’re getting the kind of grit that sits beneath your mechanic’s fingernails or is smeared across your plumber’s overalls.

But you’re also getting the literary heft of all those other Jameses, too. Indeed, reading this beautiful couplet of novellas brings to mind the James who penned Ulysses. And to demonstrate the kind of literary dexterity reflected in this book is no mean feat.

Third-person stream of consciousness always manages to leave the reader with the sense that the writer has sneaked into his head. This observational viewpoint coupled with the natural chaos of the mind’s peripatetic meandering makes reading this book feel like you are both watching the story and participating in it.

In the first piece, “The Land of Unlikeness,” ex-painter Clive returns home to visit his mother on an extended stay. Much of his youth floods back to him in both real-life and reflective visitations. Themes of family, youth, home, lovers and relationships, food, obsession, memory, and travel swirl about and in him as the older man and the young boy meet up again on the mental highways and back alleys of Clive’s past.

Little at home feels truly familiar—at least in terms of how Clive remembers—and he is surrounded by “unlikenesses.”

The essence of love hovers. The messy, often misunderstood, regularly unrequited thing that is love stains or colors much of what Clive goes through and confronts in this novella. In assessing his loves and his relationships—on both a physical and spiritual level—Clive reflects on the notion that history, even one’s own, is created by the self but not not intrinsic to it. In other words, Clive’s backstory itself is something like a work of art—as if we are all novelists of our own stories. If nothing else, Clive’s experience is about the power of the artist in us all—as well as the weaknesses our inner artist reveals in its creations.

Thad, the protagonist in Mr. Harrison’s second story comes across as the kind of American many outside the U.S. would like to see more of: a feeling, thinking, sensible, and humble person who, while no intellectual, is nevertheless wise. A person of gravitas who does not take himself seriously. Moreover, he undertakes marathon swims in the major rivers near his home and dreams of tackling the world’s big rivers.

If we use the dream analyst’s interpretation of water as a metaphor for emotion, then Thad’s humanity becomes even more pronounced. He is surrounded by those who seemingly shy away from emotional engagement or connection, while his willingness to plunge in and swim through the mess projects a more emotionally intelligent nature. This elevated EQ marks Thad as an oddity—a much beloved one—but an oddity nonetheless in his small, circumscribed world.

As crisis after crisis fall like pillars all around him, Thad calmly holds to his own truth and sensibilities, all the while dreaming of river swimming while verbalizing his desire for a more emotionally centered society.

Both stories in this fine collection are simple in their focus, but complex in their expression. Seemingly bland moments are imbued with beauty and deeper significance.

Lovely lines abound:

How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language
It seemed comic to him that people desire miracles but when they get them it adds an extremely confusing element to life.

Writing like this gives fellow writers and readers plenty upon which to ruminate.

Jim Harrison has created a real treat for those hankering for simple tales of real people in believable circumstances. The prose is seamless, the sentiment easy to take, and the characters and the storylines are finely drawn and executed. Mr. Harrison is a fine writer in top form.

It is perhaps hubristic to suggest that this book singlehandedly resurrects short form fiction, but its existence certainly attests to the force and charm of the genre in both an understated and exuberant manner. Either way, The River Swimmer would surely please short-form fiction heavyweight James Joyce. Or should that be Jim?