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Snake charmer

Jim Harrison pens a companinable narrative

In Returning to Earth, Jim Harrison’s eighth novel, Donald, a 45-year-old Chippewa-Finnish man stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, recounts the tale of his great-grandfather, who left Minnesota at age 13 and arrived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 35 years later. Donald’s wife Cynthia takes dictation and offers some parenthetical asides. This charmingly digressive family history meanders back three generations and returns to the recent past, sometimes within the same paragraph, rendering perfectly the workings of memory and the rhythms of speech.

In Donald’s final days, a member of the extended family named K takes up the story and after Donald’s passing his brother-in-law David and then Cynthia each take a turn as storyteller. Written in four parts, each about 70 pages and bearing the name of its narrator, the book has the same feel as one of Harrison’s five collections of novellas. The three speakers who follow Donald each tell a story that could stand on its own, but as they draw their energy from Donald’s lingering spirit, these three accounts taken together demonstrate the long reach of a virtuous life.

For Harrison, a good life consists of strenuous work outdoors, well-prepared meals, and accepting people as they are—things Cynthia thinks are less common today than they were years ago. She urges Donald to tell his story for the sake of their two grown children because she fears that after Donald’s death, men of his kind—the physical kind—will be “gone forever.” In one of her early asides, Cynthia remarks, “Donald is the most purely physical person I’ve ever met in my life.” Before taking ill, his typical summer day consisted of waking after five hours sleep to cook breakfast for the family, working 10-plus hours as foreman of a cement-pouring crew, and then fishing with his children until dark.

Donald may sound like a caricature of a Hemingway hero, or some dying man you might visit on a Tuesday afternoon for a kernel of wisdom. However, neither of these stereotypes applies. Although he could pass for either a man’s man or a sage, Donald is more of a snake charmer, someone who hypnotizes listeners with the sprawl of his memory and with the satisfaction he’s derived from his short life. Even when he complains about dying, there is a touch of wit in his remorse. For example, he tells Cynthia, “Even a glass of water or a pencil weighs something now. For twenty-five years I made a fair living laying blocks, pouring and finishing cement, and sometimes roughing in houses. Now I have too much spit and I don’t want to eat.” Listeners come to his bedside seeking a code for good living, but what they get is charm, endless charm. Like one of his family members, after spending an afternoon with Donald, most readers will probably feel a little bit better about being alive, too.

One reason is that Harrison is a companionable writer whose best work reads like a long conversation with an eccentric friend. In Returning to Earth, the anecdotes within the larger narrative have the drift of oral language and the texture of the oft-repeated tales good buddies exchange when they reconnect after a long absence. Much of Donald’s speech is at once absolutely wacky and perfectly sane. He begins one of his many digressions about his boyhood nemesis by saying, “Last year, before I lost most of my strength I had K drive me up to Baraga because I planned on killing Floyd.” Within two sentences however, Donald is recalling the time his teacher locked him in a janitor’s closet for five hours and then about how his friend Melvin got revenge for him. When he finally comes back to Floyd, Donald says, “Nothing about the day was what I expected. First of all it was real hot with a south wind and I had imagined killing Floyd on a cool day.” Such down-to-earth oddball-isms make Donald the sort of speaker most people can listen to for hours.

Although none of the other three narrators bends the ear like Donald can, each introduces different lines of tension and layers of ideas to the novel. The only problem is that up to this point Donald has been so expansive and rambling that it’s difficult to assemble some of the familial linkages and to figure out who is who. All confusion eventually dissolves, however, and through these new voices Harrison gradually transforms the novel from an elegy into an examination of how the bereaved resume their lives. With K, the second narrator, the book shifts its attention to the lives of the young and vexed, which is when Clare, Donald’s daughter, steps to the fore and adds some much-welcome swing to this dirge.

Harrison not only changes the tempo here; he also begins to ask some larger questions about the form and duration of mourning. Among her many excesses, Clare sleeps in Donald’s overalls for two weeks after he dies, but the other characters figure out more quickly how to carry on without Donald. David and Cynthia, the final two narrators (Donald’s brother-in-law and his wife, respectively), make surprising romantic forays and in their clumsy, erratic overtures readers encounter once again the best in Jim Harrison: his affection for those who act in accord with their troubled hearts.

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