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Jim Harrison's new novel, "Returning to Earth," is a meditation on death and family. And like many of his stories, it's a multigenerational tale set in an undeveloped American wilderness. All told, Harrison has written more than two-dozen books, including the novels "Dalva," "True North," the novella "Legends of the Fall" and eight collections of poetry. His work has earned him a cult following here and abroad.
From New York, Tom Vitale has this review.
TOM VITALE: Jim Harrison says the title of his new novel, "Returning to Earth," is a phrase that resonates on three levels - death and burial, a family's recovery from grief and the challenge a writer faces at the end of a day's work.
Mr. JIM HARRISON (Author, "Returning to Earth"): I've had mild problems with what they call a fugal state, where you can't stop your mind from whirling. You can't stop your mind from becoming fictive, spinning tales out of everything you see.
VITALE: After a day of spinning tales at his home in Patagonia, Arizona, on the Mexican border, Harrison says his reentry into ordinary life starts in the kitchen.
Mr. HARRISON: I have a glass of wine. I like to cook dinner and take the dogs for a walk. And this gradually, you know, reabsorbs me, because I live where I can walk right out the backdoor and be in a degree of wildness. I mean, like, the current problem where I live now is a neighbor lady down the road, a mountain lion attacked her dog in her breezeway. So it's a little different kind of place.
VITALE: Place is what Jim Harrison's fiction is all about. He sets his stories in the untamed corners of America, the big sky country of Montana, the arid deserts of the Southwest, the swamplands and forests of Northern Michigan. And his characters are shaped by the landscapes they live in.
Mr. COLUM MCCANN (Novelist): Jim won't ever write a campus novel. He won't write a divorce novel. He won't write the workshop novel. He never will. It's just not in his blood.
VITALE: Irish novelist Colum McCann gave a presentation at a literary conference on Jim Harrison in Paris last year. McCann says Harrison's singular vision of America has made him a popular author in Ireland and Germany and a celebrity in France.
Mr. MCCANN: It seems to me that Europeans, in particular, like him because he is telling an American story. He's not trying to be smart. It's just about ordinary characters living raw, rough edged lives in the American West. And as well that they're not necessarily given an awful lot of great literature about.
VITALE: Jim Harrison's new novel features a Native American protagonist living in a dense forest of Michigan's upper peninsula. It's where Harrison was born in 1937, the son of a farmer, and where he spent many years hunting and fishing after he became a writer.
Mr. HARRISON: Sort of an undifferentiated wilderness and then the massive presence of Lake Superior, which controls so much of the wilder. You know, Lake Superior is over 400 miles long, you know, rivers, creeks, beaver pelts, animals, wolves. I had a wolf right outside my cabin years ago. That was a lovely experience.
VITALE: The central figure in "Returning to Earth" is Donald, a 45-year-old half Chippewa Indian, who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. Donald wants his children to know about him, so he dictates to his wife tales of his ancestors and of his own struggles in his dying days. Here, Jim Harrison reads a scene describing Donald's last able-bodied walk.
Mr. HARRISON: "Well, it took me about a half an hour to reach the grub, because my muscles were seizing up, and sometimes I crawled because it was easier, also faster. I made my way into the grub and crawled up on this huge, low slung, birch stump, where David show me how you can lay back on it in the slightest breeze of Lake Superior, when Rocky jabbed me. That's what I wanted."
VITALE: In the novel, Donald has enlisted his family to help him to die and to bury him according to Chippewa tradition. Jim Harrison says he writes about Native Americans because it's what he knows.
Mr. HARRISON: Northern Michigan, where we had our farm for 35 years, it was only about seven miles from a reservation. These were the people that I know, mixed, most of them mixed race, you know. There's nothing even remotely exotic about it to me.
(Soundbite of movie, "Legends of the Fall")
Unidentified Man: I think it was the bear's voice I heard deep inside him growling low, dark, secret places.
VITALE: In this country, Jim Harrison is best known as the author of "Legends of the Fall," his novella about three Montana brothers in love with the same woman. It's another story with a Native American narrator set against the great outdoors. When "Legends of the Fall" was adapted for Hollywood in 1994, the film helped to establish Brad Pitt as a leading man.
(Soundbite of movie, "Legends of the Fall")
Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Tristan) It tells dad there are creatures here that cannot even be found in books, and I've killed them all.
Mr. HARRISON: I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought geez, did they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that? Because everybody looked pretty good, but many people seem to like it. I have no objections, because it's a director's medium. When you take or accept her check, you're selling the kid.
VITALE: When it comes to his fiction, Harrison doesn't compromise. Novelist Colum McCann says Jim Harrison is a writer's writer.
Mr. MCCANN: There's a poetry in each sentence. You can tell every sentence has been looked at. I've heard one time that Jim spent a couple of weeks looking for a word that he was convinced that he had repeated in an earlier part of the novel, and literally trolling through page after page just to make sure that he hadn't repeated the exact same image. And that's craft. It's hard work as well.
VITALE: Jim Harrison says his dedication to the writer's craft has its roots in a boyhood accident, when as a seven-year-old, a piece of glass blinded his left eye.
Mr. HARRISON: And that set me apart a little bit. So it seemed all together natural to become obsessed or feel that you had a calling for art form in which you were also set apart.
VITALE: Harrison says for him, what sets apart the good writers is range, the ambition to tell a big story.
Mr. HARRISON: It is what Einstein said when he said I have no admiration for a scientist who selects a thin piece of board and drills countless holes in it. So I'd say the range of the ambition, the demands the writer puts on themselves. It isn't easy when it's good. That's what I'm saying, you know. It takes your whole life to do it.
VITALE: At 69 years old, Jim Harrison says his fiction is still getting better, because he's had a lifetime to read the work of other writers.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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