In “The Land of Unlikeness,” the first of two novellas in this collection, we meet Clive, a 60-year-old art history professor from New York City who returns home to northern Michigan to mind his “semiblind eighty-five-year-old mother,” while his sister visits Europe. There he faces down his unhappy midlife, following a divorce, estrangement from his adult daughter, and the extinguishing of his creative force as a painter — “his fire’’ we learn, “was doused.”
Jim Harrison, at 75, has thankfully shown no signs of being doused. In fact, in the novels “True North” and “Returning to Earth,” both published in recent years, he has crafted gorgeous and wry sentences out of the quiet raging against the indignities and infirmities of age. And, in Clive, he has created another indelible and soulful rascal. He is lovelorn and a bit cracked but still a randy, grasping (sometimes groping), sad shadow of his former self, perhaps about to settle upon a better life despite his diminishment.
Exiled from the aesthetic comforts of the city, Clive at first seems little more than a snob left to endure his mother’s prickly eccentricities amid the farm people of his youth. Yet we soon learn that Clive is susceptible to the visceral yank of memory and the power of place. As is often true in Harrison’s writing, those come together in the smells and tastes of food, and the delirious potency of the natural world: “It was Ralph’s homemade pickled bologna, scarcely Proust’s madeleine but then he was scarcely Proust. The odor of this childhood treat swept him precipitously back to his childhood, sitting in the rowboat fishing for bluegills with his dad and eating sharp cheddar and pickled bologna with saltines.”
His visit home sparks entwined memories of artistic awakening and sexual shame, and he reaches a crisis when he reconnects with Laurette, his first love. He longs to paint her and to atone for his adolescent front-seat fumblings. Here, as he often does, Harrison writes about sex with frankness and easy good humor; the consummation, as it is, between Clive and Laurette is awkward, silly, and imperfect.
Late in the story, Clive muses that the “important thing was not to take himself too seriously,” which is the closest that Harrison, with his light touch, gets to pushing an epiphany. It could also be the credo of the book, though this easy nature occasionally yields evidence of hastiness and inattention.
That’s especially true of the other novella, which gives the book its title and reads more like an oral story transcribed than a considered piece of prose. It follows a teen named Thad, a gifted long-distance swimmer who discovers “water babies,” creatures of Native American myth with the faces of human infants who live beneath the water. Like a gilded tall tale, or a dream, the narrative doesn’t quite survive its odd plot developments and digressions into magical realism. Still, there are glimpses of Harrison’s sparkling prose, as when he describes the pull that Thad feels to do something great: “Some people have to burn up or become smudge.”
And even in the nearly perfect first novella, the reader cannot help but notice bits of sloppiness, such as how forms of the word “enervate” appear too often to no clear purpose. But that’s a quibble, a disagreeable fleck quickly dispatched by sentences that move with the grace of Harrison’s beloved rivers and streams. They run swiftly, but it is worth taking a moment to linger, as Clive does in a sweet, mournful moment watching his grown daughter from afar: “He stared down long and hard at the harbor, picked up his sketchbook, and then saw his daughter striding along far below and thought briefly of the distances at which we keep each other.” Harrison is one of our greatest voices of aging both clumsily and well and of teasing out hope amid sentimentality and dread.