Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison

I've been aware of Jim Harrison for a long time, exclusively through positive book reviews. The man is prolific, over 31 books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Born and raised in Michigan, Harrison currently divides his time between Montana and Arizona. He has a B.A. and an M.A. (in comparative literature) from Michigan State University. He is a writer worth knowing.

Returning to Earth was published in 2010 and I found it interesting on several levels. Four people tell their own stories, Donald, K (for Kenneth), David, and Cynthia in four virtually equal segments. Donald, half-Chippewa/half-Finn, is married to Cynthia; they have two children, and Donald is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

K is (I believe) the son of David and his ex-wife Polly. (I believe, because the book is stuffed with characters and, while I had no trouble keeping them straight, I did have trouble keeping their relationships straight).

David and Cynthia are siblings, children of a wealthy landowner/industrialist on Michigan's Upper Peninsula where most of the action takes place with side trips to Chicago, New York, Montana, and Mexico.

The story is simple: Donald dies and his survivors have to live on. But of course that's like saying life is simple: you're born, you live, you die. A lot goes on in between, and Harrison, while helping to know the four narrators intimately, touches on Native Indian beliefs, the ecological rape of the Upper Peninsula and the effect on the local tribes, relations between siblings and parents, the pressures of sex, life in the woods, how one comes to accept the inevitability of death (or not), and more.

I found the book exceptionally rich and interesting. Here, almost at random, is K musing on his parents: "At the time I looked at them as childish in their refusal to accept that life was chaotic and inconclusive. Life is slow and I watched movies to know immediately what happened next. I even made notes on what the characters might be doing during scenes in their lives that weren't in the movies. Parents often only see what they wish to see. Polly never knew that my sister Rachel and a girlfriend had sold nude Polaroids of themselves for money to buy marijuana. Clare [his step cousin] sent me some money and I managed to buy the photos back from a half dozen boys. With two of them it took money and physical threats. My sister thought of herself as a free spirit and couldn't care less. She asked me, 'Why are boys always embarrassed when you give them what they want?' A solid question, I think."

Another solid question: How have I missed reading Jim Harrison for so long?

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