Saturday, May 09, 2015

"Brown Dog Novellas"

BD, short for Brown Dog, is the hero of the numerous novellas in this large (and somewhat repetitive) volume; most of the stories were published previously over a number of decades.

Author Jim Harrison, I learned by looking him up, has written a number of better-known fictions and at least one food book titled The Raw and the Cooked.  His Brown Dog is my book group's selection this month which is the first I heard of him. These novellas did not make me wish to read more of his work.

As a part-Indian inhabitant of the Michigan Upper Peninsula, BD is a friend of many Indian people and UP locals. He's also an enemy in most cases of the hyper-intellectuals who come up there from Ann Arbor from time to time for one reason or another. So maybe, as a long-term Ann Arborite, I'm not really supposed to like him or the book. I don't.

"The natural man lives for himself; he is the unit, the whole, dependent only on himself and on his like," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. BD tries to live in a state of nature like this, and I think Harrison wants to be seen as an heir of Jean-Jacques, presenting a man in a state of nature, sort of.

There's a lot about food in the stories, which should make me like it. BD for a while adopts two children and cares for them by cooking from a book titled Dad's Own Cookbook, from which he made recipes like Mexican Chicken Stew and Dad's Own Chili. He loves the nurturing aspects of this cooking, and especially loves garlic, which he browns carefully for his step-daughter, also a garlic lover.

Descriptions of BD's cooking are a little forced: a literary device to show how dedicated he was to the children. In fact, the children often seem to be symbols introduced into the novel to prove a variety of points about BD. The boy is incredibly bright, but very little characterized; eventually he manages to enroll in the private Cranbrook school in the Detroit suburbs and disappears from the narrative. The girl, damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome, is incredibly in touch with the natural world and its creatures, unable to speak but able to imitate bird songs and animal cries. You know what? Using a mentally challenged child as a way to critique society and civilization is kind of a cheap shot.

BD's 's only ID is a driver's license, and we learn repeatedly that he has no social security number. His age is around 50; the stories take place over a longish time, but he ages somewhat more slowly than it would be natural: poetic license which doesn't bother me. BD has never had a job, only done odd-jobs to have a bit of money for women, alcohol, and gas for his various vehicles. BD's uncle Delmore conveniently has a lot of money left from working in a Detroit auto plant and buying property there -- though kind of a miser, he always comes through with enough money to buy food for the kids and keep the story going.

BD mostly lives off the land shooting deer in any season, trout fishing in any season, and poaching game birds. He particularly loves to cook and eat deer liver, which I never knew was such a delicacy. He also knows a lot of ways to cook over a campfire -- I like the outdoor cooking parts better than the cooking-for-kids parts of the book.

When BD gets any money, he immediately spends it on beer or schnapps or restaurant meals or on women. He loves women -- mainly as sex objects and his sex life is a major part of the book. His attitudes, as reflected by the omniscient narrator, are mildly offensive most of the time, but one major part of the story is exceptionally offensive: he falls in love with a social worker named Gretchen who's a lesbian and through several of the novellas gradually tries to convert her into a heterosexual by being a fantastic lover. The author doesn't come right out and say it's all about sexual politics but he doesn't need to.

Despite BD's attempt at a low profile, he's well-known to the authorities because of his various criminal activities such as selling contraband from Great Lakes shipwrecks (somehow he's a scuba diver), attacking anthropologists from the University of Michigan who want to dig up an Indian burial ground, and running away with his adopted daughter when Social Services decides to send her to an institutional school in Lansing, MI. Each of these adventures figures in one of the novellas.

To quote the summary in the New York Times review of the book:
"What Harrison does on every page of 'Brown Dog' is have fun. In the first (and best) novella, we watch B. D. haul a frozen corpse out of Lake Superior, stuff it into a stolen ice truck and convince himself it might be the father he never knew. In the second, we watch him dodge angry and lethal cuckolds, convince local newspapers he might be leading a secret 'Red Power' brotherhood and team up with an 'erstwhile though deeply fraudulent Indian activist' who is required back at U.C.L.A. soon 'to head a colloquium: "Will Whitey Ever See Red?"' In the ensuing novellas, we watch him steal a bearskin from a Hollywood producer, fall for a sex-addicted dentist, ride on a tour bus with a rock band and have 'real trouble dealing with' a Montana Costco."
The reviewer, Anthony Doerr, obviously liked the book better than I did, though he also had his reservations. BD, he writes, "connects with an implausible number of women over these 500 pages, and I don’t care to estimate the number of times Harrison employs the word 'weenie.' ... That said, readers don’t turn to Harrison for razor-sharp prose and linear narratives. Exuberance and messiness are his great strengths."


Vagabonde said...

I waited until I had some time to read all your past posts, and was able to do so tonight. I liked your Poisson d’Avril post. I remember well placing a fish in the back of our teacher in primary school. Another trick that people do, or at least did when I was growing up, is placing a bunch of empty cans on a string and attach it to the back of a car. I enjoyed your review of route 66 and the places to eat. The food in Arizona must be good (well, when you find a good restaurant!) By your review of the Jim Harrison’s book I don’t think I would enjoy reading it – don’t like that type of books.

Jeanie said...

Doesn't sound like my kind of book. I had heard of him as a Michigan writer but don't feel compelled to move on. Interesting and sad when a book we think we probably SHOULD like just doesn't cut it.