In Jim Harrison's 'Brown Dog,' novellas trace the arc of a life

In Jim Harrison's 'Brown Dog,' novellas trace the arc of a life
The cover of "Brown Dog" and author Jim Harrison. (Wyatt McSpadden / Grove Press)

Jim Harrison introduced the character Brown Dog in his 1990 book "The Woman Lit by Fireflies," a collection of novellas. The novella is a favored form of his — and of mine — and it seems ideally suited to the misadventures of this shambling savant, a middle-aged half-breed from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who is driven less by intention than by impulse but manages to move forward all the same.

"I have my own theories about what people think of as the future," Brown Dog notes. "Imagine yourself lying in bed, sleeping and dreaming of things people dream of, say fish, death, being attacked, diving to the bottom of the ocean, the world exploding, the underside of trees. … It makes the world seem blurred and huge. Then you wake up and you're just B.D. in a ten-dollar war surplus sleeping bag in a cold cabin. The first step is to pee and make coffee, which I can deal with, and after that what happens is not in firm hands."


Something similar might be said of the novella, which, existing in the middle ground between short story and novel, can go its own way a bit, streamlined and expansive at once.

And yet, write about a character enough and story begins to accrue, until his existence takes on an almost epic shape. That's what happens with Harrison's new book, "Brown Dog" — his 36th — which gathers the five novellas he has published about the character and adds a new one as a coda, creating a novel in installments that traces the arc of Brown Dog's life.

Beginning with his discovery of a perfectly preserved dead Indian in the freezing waters of Lake Superior and ending with an unexpected reconciliation, it is a book about family, about place, about what matters and what will never matter, about the rigors of a changing world. "The idea that everything with the police was connected by computer distressed him," he reflects, "remembering as he did a time when the world seemed friendlier and more haphazard."

For Brown Dog, who has never had a straight job, who measures every expense by its equivalent in six-packs, such haphazardness is all there is. "He was not under the illusion," Harrison explains, "that most of us are that he was in control, that he was in the driver's seat, as they say. … His last hope was to get home and have a life that the ancient Confucians thought was the best life, one in which nothing much happened."

It's a challenge, of course, to write fiction that intentionally meanders; sooner or later, every story has to find its point. Harrison, however, pulls it off because of the authority with which he frames the character. For all his aimlessness, Brown Dog is not without a moral barometer: In the first novella, he tries to prevent a team of university anthropologists (one of whom is his soon-to-be-former girlfriend) from digging up a Native American burial ground, and later, he becomes a foster parent to two children, including a girl impaired by fetal alcohol syndrome, whom he loves as his own.

At the same time, the power of his saga — the thrill of it — comes from the offhand nature of his choices, which bring an air of unpredictability. In "Westward Ho," he goes on the lam to Southern California (after his efforts to protect that burial site blur into illegality), only to experience a moment of revelation at the koi pond in UCLA's botanical gardens: "The carp were definitely more interesting to watch than the vagaries of doing a rundown on yourself. Like the rest of us B.D. didn't know what life was about."

An equivalent sense of acceptance, of fatalism even, marks the other five novellas. For Brown Dog, we are nothing if we lose sight of our connection to the most basic things, not least of which is our animal nature, our sense of our physical selves. "He thought of nothing for an hour," Harrison tells us, "and merely absorbed the landscape, the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him. … He had never thought a second of the word 'meditation' and this made it all easier because he was additionally blessed with no sense of self-importance or personality."

Brown Dog is, in other words, an elemental creature, an everyman on the most fundamental level, caught in the grind of survival as we all are, but also vividly, evocatively, alive.

This has its potential pitfalls, especially with a protagonist as unpolished as Brown Dog. How, after all, does such a relentlessly in-the-moment figure reveal his inner life to us without its seeming forced? Harrison, though, never condescends to his creation, even when writing about what's beyond him: that reference to the Confucians, say, or another to St. Augustine, or a running gag about "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Rather — and despite "Brown Dog's" occasional forays into satire (of Hollywood, of academia, of journalists who parachute into a remote region like the U.P. looking for a story while missing what's before their eyes) — these novellas read like a nuanced conversation between author and character. Harrison is masterful at evoking the depth of even the least reflective existence, the love and longing, the failings of the body, the yearnings that will never be resolved.

In that too, Brown Dog stands for every one of us, trying to remain present, to keep himself and his family warm and fed. That he does so, and even, at the end of the last novella, achieves an unlikely transcendence, does not take away the difficult knowledge of what the future holds.

Or as Harrison puts it: "Oh sons and daughters of man, under the vast and starry night though the stars are invisible, what are you doing here while your histories moment by moment trail off behind you like auto exhaust, he thought though not quite in those words."

Brown Dog

Jim Harrison
Grove Press: 526 pp., $27