At Home in the World : JULIP, <i> By Jim Harrison (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence: $21.95; 275 pp.)</i>
How life gets into art is mysterious and miraculous. A writer shapes some fictional clay, breathes a few words and then--maybe!--the clay stands up and goes for a walk. Jim Harrison’s new book, “Julip,” performs this amazing act of creation three times, in three novellas that seize us by the hand and take us on three different paths through the world.
In the title novella, we experience the world among women; in “The Seven-Ounce Man” we experience a Native American world; and in “The Beige Dolorosa” we visit a largely Latino world. What is surpassingly wonderful is that all three fictional experiences are so lively. Rollicking and sad, hilarious and startlingly sweet smart and never cynical, these are stories that remind us no life should be overlooked or taken for granted.
In the first novella “Julip,” a young woman who trains dogs and keeps three older men on a tighter leash than they know, is not “particularly pretty or classically handsome” but “vivid, immediate, and (has) almost involuntarily filled out her life to its limits, moment by moment, with a rare emotional energy.” She is determined to have her brother, Bobby, moved from prison--where he is doing 7-to-10 for shooting and wounding three lovers--to a mental hospital.
To do this, she must visit various people, including the lovers, a photographer, a painter and a writer, referred to collectively as “the Boys.” The Boys, despite being middle-aged and successful, are boys. “When camera, paintbrush, and pen were put aside, they were right out there in la-la land with the Bloomingdale’s teenyboppers.” They are “unquestionably kind and generous,” but desire--a nameless desire, a vague American hankering for something different, something better or else simply more--has permanently befuddled them, and apparently they eye Julip as a possible fulfillment of that desire. Julip is smart, and how she accomplishes her mission and leaves the Boys behind is the witty trajectory of this fast-moving narrative.
“The Seven-Ounce Man” continues the adventures of Brown Dog, who previously appeared in Harrison’s “The Woman Lit by Fireflies.” Brown Dog might be described as a first-rate underachiever. He’s a hormone-addled happy-go-lucky sometime pulp-cutter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula whose most recent run-in with the law revolves around the illicit transportation of a fossilized Indian corpse. His intention had been to protect a Native graveyard from scientific excavation. Brown Dog is always well-intentioned--to the extent that he is capable of intention. Mostly, he lives from day to day, and it is his innate knack for relishing each day in turn that wins a reader to his side. Wanted by assorted law officers, social workers, journalists, relatives and girlfriends’ boyfriends and husbands, he never fails to appreciate “a big nature day.” Brown Dog, although not an Indian, nevertheless feels honor-bound to risk all to defend the burial site, and ends up becoming part of the Wild Wild Midwest Show--a concept that still makes me laugh out loud.
The last narrative gives us Phillip Caulkins, a 50-year-old divorced professor whose career has been overturned by a charge of sexual harassment. Where this story might have bogged down in academic discourse or in recycled satirical potshots, Harrison offers a touching portrait of a man reinventing himself. Caulkins’ daughter sets him up on her in-laws’ ranch in southeast Arizona.
There, he reviews his life until he begins to be aware of the new life he is leading--outdoors, riding horses, mending fences. Not to mention rediscovering sex and tangling with drug smugglers. “I meant to get rid of my personality which insisted on maintaining a world that no longer existed. . . . I must reshape myself to fully inhabit the earth.” He also has a dream in which he is told to attach new names to the birds, because “so many of the current names of birds are humiliating and vulgar. . . . The thrasher is now called the ‘beige dolorosa,’ which is reminiscent of a musical phrase in Mozart, one that makes your heart pulse with mystery, as does the bird.”
It is the “otherness” of birds that intrigues and attracts Caulkins, as it is, one suspects, the otherness of these characters that has intrigued the author. I can imagine a reader who might be offended at the author’s excursions into ethnic and sexual territories that are not his home place, but I cannot imagine taking such a reader seriously. There is no slumming among subcultures here. Like Caulkins, one may feel “at home, whether I deserved to or not.”
These three novellas work beautifully together, composing a true triptych whose panels complete and comment upon one another. Motifs and references recur, patterning a book as artistically whole as it is emotionally revivifying.