Arts

book review

Jim Harrison’s novellas full of urgency, relentlessness

dan page for the boston globe

Jim Harrison established himself as a master of that hybrid, the novella, with his 1979 collection “Legends of the Fall.” Two of the three tales in that book, the title piece and “Revenge,’’ won critical praise and inspired film versions, attesting to Harrison’s success with a form that requires the sustained immediacy of the short story with the expansive storytelling of a novel.

“The Ancient Minstrel,’’ Harrison’s latest collection, reminds us that there is perhaps no other writer as comfortable with the novella as this prolific 78-year-old. At their best, his tales possess the hypnotic grace and momentum of a long-distance, freestyle swimmer, pages cleaving away like armstrokes.

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The first and title novella, straight out of the blocks, catches the reader off-guard with its caveat that it is memoir presented as fiction. It’s an approach Harrison took in his powerful and largely undercelebrated 1984 novel, “Sundog.’’ How much of “The Ancient Minstrel” is autobiography, with — possibly — a dash of imagination thrown in as a livening agent — I have no idea, nor interest. The artist as pig farmer plays out in an extended metaphor in this story about a literary writer late in life who recalls the path of his career — and on a whim buys a pregnant sow. I hate to blow an ending in a review, and won’t do it here, but in the epilogue, which references a lovely essay Harrison wrote for the literary journal, Antaeus, he elaborates further: “It has been said that there is an intense similarity in people’s biographies. It’s our dreams and visions that separate us. You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it. You should make a practice of avoiding all affiliations that might distract you.”

A reader of Harrison’s previous fiction will note in “The Ancient Minstrel’’ many of the primal elements of his artistic terrain — stonemasons, draft horses, Côtes du Rhône wines, river swimmers, porterhouse steaks — which is like noting that a painter’s palette might lean toward umber or sienna. The elements do not predetermine the composition, and for this, we keep reading Harrison with pleasure and wonder. First and always a poet, one of our most respected and best, Harrison is working quickly now. Quick can mean sloppy, but this is a different kind of quickness — an urgency and relentlessness that is bracing and appreciated.

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My favorite novella in this collection, “Eggs,” is the second one. There is very much the sense, particularly here, of the current quickening, and it is a delight to see Harrison forgoing the allure of his intelligent and sometimes goofy digressions and giving himself over to straight narrative. In “Eggs,” the life of the main character, Catherine, gallops past in 100 pages, childhood to middle age, revealed in a succession of usually-short chapters, each not unlike a prose poem, many of which close with Turgenev-like simplicities that underscore the power and momentum of that life. Catherine, who has an intimate connection to farms and chickens, has decided to have a child and raise it, with or without a father. (The novella is of course about far more than this — it plumbs the depths of what makes life worth living, for example, and the code of ethics involved with suffering, and the harm done to others by suicides.)

Regarding the last novella, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas,” which I think should be read second, not first: It’s darker than dark, though on the book’s jacket is given a whimsical description — a retired detective “is hired as a private investigator to look into a bizarre cult that achieves satori by howling along with howler monkeys at the zoo.”

This is classic Harrison, his two big minds working at once — juggling the situational humor of the title only enough to keep it in the air while the hand of the surgeon, slides along steadily, powerfully, in the story of a man whose lust and gluttony pull him ever deeper into a pit from which there seems no escape. Long paragraphs, studded dense with precise imagery, propel this gripping story about sexual obsession. It’s a sobering read, and what troubles me is its position as the last in the book, the last word. There’s a hastening mild nihilism that has never been present in any of Harrison’s other fiction: so much so that it feels as if it’s written in a different language, if not also by a different writer.

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Despite that, the central hallmarks of Harrison’s other novellas — mirth, a ravening appetite for food of all sorts, sophisticated or rustic; delight in the physical bodies of men and women; delight in and sharp observation of, and wonder at, the natural world — are here, still and again, in all three stories. And at the heart of all beats the essential Jim Harrison: big lives and full fare, start to finish; and at the book’s conclusion one hates to see that end.

THE ANCIENT MINSTREL

By Jim Harrison

Grove, 255 pp., $25

Rick Bass is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, “For A Little While: New and Selected Stories.’’
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