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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More of what we love from Jim Harrison, January 11, 2013
This review is from: The River Swimmer: Novellas (Hardcover)
In these two relatively short novellas, Harrison offers one male protagonist in each: one an adolescent swimmer and the other a retired painter. But the signature that runs through much of Harrison's work is in both of these characters: they are burdened by their reflections, their impulses, and especially in the case of Clive, the aging painter, their regrets. Harrison here adds two more inspired stories to his already large bibliography.

The first story, "The Land of Unlikeness" follows 60-year-old Clive, a bitter ex-painter (of 20 years) and recently retired professor of art history. This narrative has become almost a template for Harrison: a character banished by or burned out on a complicated urban life seeks refuge in his hometown, a rural Michigan location. The story is a series of reflection upon experiences which provide a series of realizations about the man's identity, and this process allows him to heal previously damaged relationships with his mother, sister, and especially his daughter. Like much of Harrison's work, it's beautifully written, full of witty observations and acknowledgements of subtle ironies that very often go ignored. The protagonist is deeply flawed, but he's good at his core, and Harrison communicates that well.

The title story, "The River Swimmer" is a tale of 17-year-old Thad, part of a history-rich farming family in Michigan. Thad's obvious blessing is his uncanny swimming ability, both his physique and his disciplined focus on the activity. The story revolves around Thad's inner conflict: should he build his life around his family's farm, or pursue his love of hydrology at his college of choice? His swimming ability is a complication because others would love to see him swim competitively, which he has no interest in. The story is full of evil characters with evil intent and well-meaning, yet fundamentally flawed characters. The story overall is another beauty--Harrison uses the story to demonstrate the contrast between the pastoral life and that of the typically urban, academic world. The protagonist sees value in both, and both worlds feature deep flaws and incredible beauty.

Overall this pair is more or less what I'd expect from Jim Harrison. I enjoy it as I do all of his work, though I'm not surprised by anything here. Perhaps the third novella should have been another Brown Dog episode, but that's not for me to say. Perhaps the fact is simply that Harrison has hit upon something so perfect that he can winnow away at it infinitely and continue to produce these excellent stories.
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