The River Swimmer

Novellas

by Jim Harrison

The River Swimmer

Hardcover, 240 pages, Grove Press, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

Two novellas provide insight on the human condition as a 60-year-old art history academic embarks on an unexpected journey of discovery, and a young farm boy is drawn to the water of Lake Michigan as an escape.

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4 weeks on NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The River Swimmer

Chapter 1

Clive awoke before dawn in a motel in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking that it was altogether possible that every woman in the world was married to the wrong man. He was sixty and hadn't been married in twenty years but his divorce was still the starkest rupture in his life. Afterward his fire was doused, or so he thought, and he had quit being a painter and had become an art history professor, an emissary, appraiser, and cultural handyman. In actuality he had allowed time to slur reality and the break was far from clean. The year before the divorce his final show at a New York gallery had been declared by a Times critic to be "absurdly decorative," the kiss of death for an abstract painter and also a kiss good-bye with a gallery that had only sold two of the thirty paintings and those heavily discounted to one of Clive's few collectors.

Ypsilanti wasn't a destination, to be sure, but a stop on his way to northern Michigan to look after his semiblind eighty-five-year-old mother while his sister made her first trip to Europe. His sister had chided him on the phone that he had admitted to more than thirty trips to Europe while she hadn't been once. This wouldn't have been possible but he had been put on a three-month leave of absence by his Ivy League university for an unfortunate incident that had involved minimal but disastrous self-defense. During the annual public lecture that was part of his obligation for his endowed chair in the humanities a dozen members of a group called the Art Tarts had rushed up on the stage and their leader, a thin young woman of Amazonian height, had thrown a canister of yellow paint on his favorite suit (Savile Row) and then began rapping on his chest with a sharp knuckle while screaming "Sexist cocksucker!" He pushed her away and she tumbled backward off the podium, gave her head a nasty crack, and broke her collarbone. Fortunately for Clive the lecture had been videotaped, though the dean dissuaded him from pursuing an assault charge. She pursued one, but her contingency lawyer had seen the videotape and told her that he couldn't win her a dime.

Above all else, including a list of neurotic disorders, marital and academic difficulties, Clive was a man of surpassing good humor and amazing memory. He remembered everyone's name across the board from society people to grocery clerks to janitors and cleaning women. As a child he had been fascinated by names and had kept a name journal throughout his life. In his side work appraising art — nineteenth-century American art was his specialty — for estate, insurance, or divorce purposes, he knew the names of a dozen doormen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Always a liberal he insisted on being called by his first name so he was greeted by them as "Mister Clive."

After a twelve-hour drive and a bitterly stupid late meal in Ypsilanti he was susceptible to his only two current anger items. First was his ruined favorite suit which literally made him see yellow. It was irreplaceable mostly because he had lost nearly 70 percent of the value of his modest portfolio in the economic plunge. This was due to receiving stock tips from a hedge fund stalwart who himself had lost a couple of billion. The man had been apoplectic for a year because he had bought many paintings at exorbitant prices and now had to pay his long-term wife half their value in their divorce settlement.

The night of modest indigestion led him to question why an ordinary mom-and-pop restaurant would put a big amount of rosemary, currently America's most overused herb, in their meat loaf. This led to his prime source of anger which he tended to keep private except with a few friends. It was greed. Unmitigated cupidity. Despite having quit painting twenty years before, Clive was a romantic idealist about art. He had noted beginning in the past two and a half decades the growing percentage of people who when they talked about art were only talking about the art market and its confetti of price tags. Some days it was up to 100 percent. He had long ago given up making pointed remarks about the fact that art and the art market were two entirely different things. Clive was not widely read in the field of socioeconomics or the problem would have been clearer. Such academic prose was utterly without aesthetic merit and this quality was demanded in something as simple as this money obsession. It was a brutish crime indeed and far from the ideals of a boy of ten, who had been dropped off at the Big Rapids Public Library to study art books with goose bumps while his parents shopped at the grocery and hardware store and picked up feed at the grain elevator. The final blasphemous straw, though it wasn't a painting, was a bid of twenty-eight million dollars for a single chair at the Yves

Saint Laurent belongings auction in Paris. Curiously, his many French and Italian friends and acquaintances rarely spoke of money. They didn't necessarily have better taste but open discussions about money were apparently in bad form.

It was only 5 a.m. and he didn't want to wait two hours for Zingerman's to open in the neighboring city of Ann Arbor in order to buy intriguing food supplies. He would call in and do a FedEx order, which would irritate his penurious mother. He had wanted to dine at Zingerman's Roadhouse the evening before but was absolutely sure he would run into someone he knew. He had begun his teaching career at the University of Michigan and even though that was more than fifteen years before, the idea of explaining his recent mudbath to an old colleague was unacceptable. The Internet and pestilential e-mail ensured that the gossip would have made its way around. The New York Times had run a very small item but the Post had run a photo of him staring down cross-eyed at the paint on his suit.

All of these annoyances passed with the pressure of leaving early enough to miss the rush hour and the more than overwhelming glories of burgeoning spring. Since childhood he had favored May above all other months and driving north a couple of hundred miles to what was left of the old farm was curiously enlivening in its variations of diminishing spring, much stronger in the south, but still there farther north with budding hardwoods and a distinct emerging green in pastures with loitering black and white Holsteins, all of which began to purge his mind of the enervations of his livelihood. When he turned east on a gravel road between Big Rapids and Reed City he stopped beside a marsh with the car windows rolled down and listened to the trilling cacophony of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds, and on the other side of the road the more dulcet calls of meadowlarks. He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.

From The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison. Copyright 2012 by Jim Harrison. Excerpted with permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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