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Jim Harrison revives a beloved character, explores scorned lovers

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``THE SUMMER HE DIDN'T DIE'' by Jim Harrison; Atlantic ($24)


Brown Dog is back. And back in trouble. Fans of Jim Harrison will celebrate like mystery buffs cheering the latest incarnation of their favorite detective.

Harrison devotees might argue that Brown Dog belongs to a higher class of literature, a tough burden to heap on a character who's so unsophisticated, beery and innocent except that he's forever afoul of the authorities. In the opening paragraph of ``The Summer He Didn't Die,'' Brown Dog is already violating Michigan law, fishing trout from an Upper Peninsula stream two days before the legal season. "Not in contempt of regulators but because he was hungry for brook trout."

In Harrison's early novellas, the half-Chippewa's oblivious regard for laws and regulations led him into all manner of low crimes and misdemeanors. He hasn't much improved his citizenship in the title tale of Harrison's three-novella collection. Brown Dog, described by a lover as a "wonderful backwoods nitwit," has been saddled with raising the two children of an unruly friend, who has been packed off to prison for biting off the finger of a policeman.

One of the kids, Berry, a product of fetal alcohol syndrome, communicates through bird calls, leading state welfare officials to decide she would be better off institutionalized. Once again, Brown Dog bucks the inscrutable bureaucracy.

Brown Dog's tale comes with great dollops of lovemaking (notably with a sex addicted dentist). His lovers find he suffers "none of the hesitancy of his more modern counterparts who tiptoed in and out of women's lives wearing blindfolds, nose plugs, ear plugs and fluttering ironic hearts."

Brown Dog takes on life unhampered by ambition, unfettered by regrets, unbothered by a lack of indoor plumbing. Harrison has created a hero for those of us tortured by the nits of modern civilization.

The second novella, ``Republican Wives,'' tells of a trio of witty, wealthy women, friends since their college days, close as sisters, all mired in marriages with dull, disconnected but prosperous husbands. All three have had intermittent affairs with the same pompous writer since college.

Daryl - literary celebrity and lefty radical - has all the stuff their husbands lack. But a loutish self-regard offsets his charms. He's cruel enough to send each of the three husbands a photo of his nude wife, prompting Martha to attempt a deadly revenge. She flees to Mexico, albeit to a fine resort hotel, where the sisters-in-sin rendezvous and take stock of their comfortable Republican lives.

Martha, Frances and Shirley, funny and full of wry self-regard, are so unlike Brown Dog that they could be interlopers from a Larry McMurtry novel. "Money is exhausting, isn't it?" Martha says.

``Tracking'' comes as a jolting contrast to the preceding stories, tracking the author's actual life so closely that the fictional aspects must be elusive to anyone outside Harrison's immediate family. He writes of a literary ambition that began at age 16, as a would-be poet in rural Michigan, whose career introduces him to a stunning array of famous names and great cities and wilderness retreats. But names and places come with few details.

``Tracking'' is a review of a writer's impulses and his long struggle to sort many exotic experiences onto paper. "His thought was that it was his duty to eat the world but had no idea what to spit out. He had carelessly become everything in order to write - men, women, trees, lakes, the landscape which absorbed him, dogs, deer, cats, the noises he heard, the night sky. You fling yourself into life and in the process of eating it, it ate you."

Harrison has crafted ``Tracking'' as a series of simple, declarative sentences and arranged them almost as a transcript of oral history, with little of the wit and poetry of the companion pieces.

He offers a complicated life, in which his successes - some 25 novels and collections of poetry, novellas, essays and children's stories and heaps of critical praise - matter less than the years of inner struggle and self-doubt. Ambition and the lure of Hollywood and need for money all conspire against a writer's soul.

``Tracking'' makes it clear that Harrison, more than any of his fans, envies the uncomplicated life of Brown Dog.


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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