- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 10 hours and 42 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
- Audible.com Release Date: November 10, 2004
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0006JM0TO
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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True North Audiobook – Unabridged
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The protagonist is from a rich family that denuded the Michigan forests and ran mining operations in Northern Michigan. In other words, financial robber barons and ecological criminals. This perplexes our hero greatly, and he decides to research the evil in his family (mostly his grandfather's and great grandfather's actions) I guess as a means to understand it and purge himself of it. Clearly, our hero identifies more with Native Americans and lives that lifestyle, unlike his salacious and out of control father. There are two major plotlines in this story, one being the hero's quest to find out more about his family's history and the other being his amorous adventures with young ladies.
One problem is with all of his female sex partners. None of them are shy and withdrawn or self-conscious about their bodies. And they all seem to approach sex with the same exact attitude and techniques, and that attitude is total abandon. It's as if, during the sex scenes, they are all the same character. It's one failing Harrison has in this novel. He doesn't seem to know how to write female characters. It's as if they were all guys with female genitals.
Another problem is related to something Robert McKee addresses in his book, STORY. I think he calls it the Law of Conservative Response. In McKee's book, he asserts that, when confronted by a dilemma or crisis, people tend to respond with the least amount of effort possible, which of course implies that, as new permutations of the problem arise, the responses develop greater magnitude. In this story, it seems as if the problem stays at the same level and so do his responses. This situation is also alluded to in Donald Maass's book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. In it, Maass talks about that old chestnut, "Raising the Stakes". In other words, the consequences of the protagonist's actions become greater and the results of failure responses more dire as the story continues. And I kind of didn't have that feeling with this story. First of all, what is the great reward if the hero totally researches and understands what his ancestors did? How does that make him feel better or turn him into a better person? Also, what is the negative consequence if he fails in his mission? Not a lot as far as I can see. He won't be appreciably more screwed up than he already is.
That said, let me offer a taste of Harrison's style. You may remember I said that the hero is preoccupied with both sex and religion. Here's a passage from page 48:
I continued on to the tip of Presque Isle then circled around the west side of the peninsula and back toward home, a three-hour walk loaded with sappy feelings about Laurie, the kind of emotional schmaltz that makes country music so sodden. I made a detour to avoid passing the Baptist church what with the odors of the sin of fornication on my skin, not a small item after a year that included baptism, prayer meetings, and my prolonged and devout study of the Bible. I consoled myself by thinking that fooling with girls didn't seem high on Jesus' agenda of the forbidden, and while St. Paul was doubtless a good man he tended toward dreariness. This sort of waffling is typical of young fundamentalists looking for an angle in which they may behave as they wish.
The story is divided, so far, into three sections: the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. Since I graduated high school in 1959, it's easy for me to get caught up these decades as my own age during these times mirrors the age of the protagonist. Harrison's use of detail from these decades appears to be flawless, and he culls up memories of things that I didn't realize I still had.
David Burkett, the main character in Jim Harrison's new novel, True North, dedicates his life to Christ as a young man in order to spend less time thinking about himself. Everyone around him spends inordinate amounts of time in self-preoccupation while Burkett wants to create a life oriented toward others. His struggle to submerge ego is largely based upon guilt over the irretrievable damage his father and his immediate ancestors have done by clear-cutting millions of acres of white pine forests in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Readers follow David Burkett's struggle with his ego through nearly forty years of his life. Along the way we are treated to the massive range of Jim Harrison's intellect, to his amazing writing style which is reminiscent of Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in this book, a more accessible free-associative style than in Dalva or The Road Home, his two previous novels), and to the usual array of down home wisdom so abundant in his oevre.
Structurally, the novel is framed by Burkett's father's death, which, a la Ondaatje, the reader discovers in an italicized prologue. Burkett's father can only be described as a terrific sociopath, a negative example that Burkett attempts not to emulate. He sets off on a literary journey in which he wants to chronicle the damage his family has done to the UP. David Burkett is an apple that has fallen far from the tree and much of the novel describes his efforts to keep it that way. We witness Burkett's burgeoning sexuality and the ethical questions it poses first to Burkett as a young Christian and later to Burkett as a mature, less formally religious man trying to live a decent human life. There are, however, many formal musings about religion, the nature of love, relationships, and living with nature.
In True North, readers of Harrison novels and poetry will marvel at his ability to make nature and Burkett's dog, Carla, into major minor characters. For example, during a phone call in which he discovers that his mother is dying, Burkett mindlessly twirls a globe near his desk in his study. "For unclear dog reasons Carla hated and was frightened by the twirling globe and her barking mixed with the terrifying news seemed appropriate rather than irritating." As for nature, Harrison presents a conflict between Burkett and a lover that parallels a conflict that exists throughout our culture: whether we are to appreciate the present, whatever it is, or remember and attempt to reconcile what we have done in the past.
"One morning while drinking coffee on the riverbank I described to her what the river would have been like before its path had been gouged by thousands of giant logs during the timbering era. She said that I was cursed with this knowledge of a pre-Adamic Eden and that the river looked fine to her and so did the forest. I said that the river had achieved an explicit nature in the twelve thousand years since the glaciers and it had been shameful to destroy this nature in a few years of logging violence... . `I don't exclude people like you do,' she said, adding that she was pleased with her innocent eyes that were still overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings. I agreed but then said if we don't identify what we did wrong we'll keep on doing it. `I just don't want what's wrong to swallow your entire life, then you'd only be a critic reacting to what others have done badly. You won't have any balance in your life.' `Do you?' I asked... ."
Admirers of Harrison's poetry (collected in The Shape of the Journey) will enjoy the stridently lovely prose in True North. Harrison is often at his best when describing nature. In the following passage, he portrays David Burkett's love of the splendor of Grand Marais.
"I continued down the beach past the path to my tourist cabin toward the estuary of the Sucker River a mile or two distant. The moon's sheen on the water followed me as I walked for reasons not clear to me. It occurred to me that my own point of view was unique on earth but this was not a comforting idea. Wherever I stood and looked I was the only one there. The few sounds of the village diminished, and I mostly heard my feet in the damp sand, and then a loon call ahead in the estuarine area. To the left far out in Lake Superior the lights of a freighter made their slow passage to the west. I heard a coyote out on a forested promontory called Lonesome Point and single dog answering the coyote from the village. My heart fluttered when I flushed a plover from a thickish stand of beech grass. There was a dense smell of wild roses mixing with the odor of cold water."
In True North Harrison offers readers everything from speculations on the nature of religion to obscure references to Sartre, to a masterful inclusion of a line from one of his best poems ("The Theory and Practice of Rivers"). Not since Farmer, Harrison's first novel, has the author produced such a stunning piece of art.