Kevin, at Interpolations, suggested folks read Jim Harrison’s Farmer (1976), so I did. I’d never read him before. The short novel makes a nice companion piece to Jean Thompson’s Iowa novel The Year We Left Home – Harrison’s Michigan novel could be re-titled The Year I Stayed Home. Actually, in the first chapter, we see that our hero Joseph has, in fact, left home, or at least gone on vacation for the first time in his life, so never mind. The Year I Left Home works for this novel, too. Joseph just has to work out a few minor issues before he can leave home. Death, love, vocation, that sort of thing.
Joseph spends a lot of time wandering in the woods, hunting and fishing and looking around. I would have been happy if the novel had been nothing but, like a book-length version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Fisted River.” Just one of these after another:
One afternoon he had been lucky enough to see a Cooper’s hawk swoop down through the trees and kill a blue-winged teal. The other ducks escaped in a wild flock circling the pond twice while the Cooper’s hawk stood shrouding its prey with its wings. Joseph watched it feed on the teal’s breast then fly off to a large dead oak to preen. It was far too spectacular to be disturbing. (15)
A water snake swam passed the boat; the doctor poked at it with the tip of his flyrod and the startled snake turned and hissed. Then it continued on its way, leaving an S-shaped miniature wake in the water. (102)
Man in nature – the “man” part is what makes it literature. Harrison’s novel is about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ennobled lemurs,” a more humanistic investigation of human animalism than Zola’s Thérèse Raquin:
Animals were so clearly just themselves, much more so than humans. He liked the idea that man was the only mammal that thought of himself as part of a species. (42)
The best ideas in the novel are about Joseph, or Harrison, investigating the relationship between his animal self and his “ennobled” self, how a sexual affair with a student* relates to his love of Keats and Whitman, or why he will hunt grouse (“splendid dinners wandering around in the forest waiting to be gathered and eaten”) but not woodcock or deer. What strange animals we are.
I guess Hemingway never wrote a story called “The Big Two-Fisted River,” but he should have. Someone should. I am thinking of the one he did write, with the similar name. “Hearted,” not “Fisted.”
* Poking around, I have of course come across comparisons of Farmer with Lolita, reminding me of how utterly, shamefully ignorant many people are about Nabokov’s novel.