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The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

Published by Grove Press on January 8, 2013 

If you've read Jim Harrison you know what to expect (gentle humor poking fun at the hapless male) and what not to expect (commas) from his writing. The River Swimmer is a short volume consisting of two novellas. The first addresses the familiar theme of Harrison's recent work: the aging man's need to renew his life, his eternal struggle to understand women, and his slightly ridiculous response to sexual desire. The second concerns a young man who endeavors to swim through the bewildering array of obstacles and opportunities that life presents.

In "The Land of Unlikeness," a man must choose between "the world's idea of success" and his love of creating art. Twenty years divorced and three years estranged from his daughter, Clive still hasn't gotten his life together. A former artist who abandoned painting for the financial security of academia, Clive is taking an involuntary leave of absence following an unfortunate encounter with an Art Tart. At his sister's insistence, he is using the time to visit his elderly bird-watching mother at his childhood home in Michigan. Since this is the mother who, years earlier, made a speech at dinner that ended with "You failed us, son," it's easy to understand why Clive doesn't want to go home again. Clive's thoughts are occupied by missed opportunities and mild regrets, some of which pertain to a childhood flame who still lives in town. Still, in his less sullen moments, Clive displays the guarded optimism that is common in Harrison's characters: "He had the happy thought that he had zero percent financing on the rest of his life because no one more than nominally cared except himself. He might be going mad as a hatter but it hadn't been that bad so far." At the age of sixty, well into life's third act, can Clive stop "toting around his heavy knapsack of ironies" and find a way to allow "a little light ... to peek into his beleaguered soul"?

"The River Swimmer" tells an offbeat story. Thad grew up on an island in the middle of a river. When he wasn't working on the family farm, he was swimming. "If there were indeed water spirits they had a firm hold on him like love eventually does on young men, an obsessional disease of sorts." After brawling with Friendly Frank, his girlfriend's father, Thad swims the hundred miles from Muskegon to Chicago. He hooks up with a girl he meets along the way. To Thad's embarrassment, the girl and her wealthy father become involved in his family drama when Friendly Frank's employees put Thad's father in the hospital, an outgrowth of the confrontation between Thad and Frank. Thad doesn't want to hate Friendly Frank, but "surely part of the greatest evil of evil men is that they make you hate them." Soon he finds himself back on the farm, in the company of Frank's daughter, the wealthy man's daughter, and another girl he's bedded. Women and employers and swimming coaches have plans for Thad. With his whole life ahead of him, Thad doesn't want to be pinned down like a butterfly in a collection. As Thad transitions to adulthood, he is desperate to retain his freedom, his sense of adventure, his profound link to water. Yet in the end, he learns that life can't be planned.

Both stories are populated with quirky characters. The earthy characters in "The River Swimmer" are particularly engaging. As always, Harrison's writing is filled with sharp insight as he gently dissects his characters, exposing faults and revealing quintessential goodness. It would be difficult to read these stories without a smile, although "The River Swimmer" turns out to be the more serious of the two.


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