A version of this review appeared in Orion magazine.
THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998. 464 pages, $25. Washington Square Press paperback, $14.
by William Severini Kowinski
"Nebraska reminds me of what America was supposed to look like before it became something else," Jim Harrison comments in "From the Dalva Notebooks," published in his book of non-fiction, "Just Before Dark." Through swirls of events and thickets of passions, obsessions and relationships it takes two novels and some 800 pages to describe, the road home leads to the timeless Nebraska landscape, where as a kind of analogue to other natural cycles, members of the Northridge family walk and hunt with beloved dogs, eat and drink gloriously, make love, ride horses, read and treasure books as well as painting and music, watch birds, observe and take care of the land and each other, ponder, puzzle, reflect, regret and remember, as they had for over a hundred years.
But from the opening sentence of THE ROAD HOME, the capacious and deeply satisfying companion novel to the stunning "Dalva" of a decade ago, the themes of mortality and time are also present. Lives are distorted notably by wars (World War I, Korea, Vietnam), while the land and Native peoples are insistently and inexorably destroyed by rapacious agents of greed and deadly beliefs. There are several deaths (the final home where the road leads) rendered with grace and ceremony and the elegiac rhythms of a writer with some years on his meter.
But the road is also a way, a journey that demands consciousness, clarity and truthful statement, which Harrison produces in an abundance of cogent, witty, memorable, epigrammatic prose. This for me is the foremost achievement of this novel, and at minimum contributes mightily to the pleasure of reading every page. Harrison's years of meditation show clearly in this exactness, as does his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.
THE ROAD HOME takes the narrative of "Dalva" forward a little in time, but basically it adds more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him in the Dalva Notebooks), the son she first meets as a young man ( who roams the western landscape as a deliberate contemporary nomad, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings"),her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother. This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.
Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, but what makes him one of the few novelists of non-urban subjects to win wide readership and establishment praise (even if the New York Times Book Review containing his rave review nevertheless put Tom Wolfe on the cover) is the unique landscape of his writing.
His sentences are rhythmic and perfectly formed, his prose is often formal(he is the only contemporary writer I know who habitually uses the words "captious" and "otiose")but his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Although almost everything in this book is presented as having been written down in journals and letters, Harrison's prose has the sound of speech, yet no one actually speaks this way, except maybe Jim Harrison, at least in interviews.
I think of Harrison's work also as a bridge, for example, linking urban readers ushered by literary quality to the urgency of attending to the natural world, or by linking nature and culture as only someone with his credentials in both can do. Harrison is profligate and generous in naming the work of specific writers, and their importance in his characters' lives may encourage his readers to seek them out. For me, reading "Dalva" and its accounts of contemporary mixed bloods and the 19th century Lakota was a specific bridge to fiction that is by as well as about Native Americans. (In fact, I found my paperback of "Dalva" on a shelf marked "Miscellaneous" in a small town used bookstore in the central Pennsylvania mountains, along with Peter Matthiessen's "Indian Country," a book of contemporary Native short stories, and novels by Native authors Craig Lesley and Thomas King. I bought and read them all, but started with "Dalva.")
The interplay of present and recollections or rediscoveries of the past form the basic movement of most of Harrison's fiction, and this rises to artful and powerful meaning in THE ROAD HOME. There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY(Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. THE ROAD HOME is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.
"With all our self-consciousness," writes Ursula LeGuin," we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here or right now. If we did, we wouldn't muck it up the way we do." Jim Harrison's timely and timeless work has that kind of honesty, urgency and density. His achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY: "They sing what and where they are."