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Rivers, streams and other bodies of water serve as a backdrop in the three novellas comprising Jim Harrison's latest work, The Summer He Didn't Die, and it is only fitting that they do. For it is under the surface of a favorite trout stream or in one of Harrison's stories that one finds true surprises.
Harrison is a prolific writer who has written novels, novellas, poetry, a memoir and Hollywood screenplays. For those not so familiar with his work, the film treatment of his novella Legends of the Fall may resonate. His latest work features characters far more intriguing than outward appearances would indicate. They also are loosely tied together by the importance invested in the places they decide to call home. Home is never too far from a trout stream or lake where the characters go to heal.
The title story features B.D., or Brown Dog, a trout poacher and logger who holds down the family trailer as his wife sits in prison. He has a penchant for women of all shapes and sizes.
"Brown Dog was greatly drawn to women with 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."
Harrison states the case eloquently. Basically, B.D. has a lot of lust in his heart. Still, underneath the Falstaff-like exterior is a man who gamely makes ends meet and is devoted to his stepchildren, devotion that underlies his actions.
Republican Wives tells of three well-heeled women, college friends, who all had affairs with the emotionally abusive Daryl, a free-spirited poet who forever changed their lives. A crisis created by one woman's attempt to poison Daryl reunites the three, and readers gain insight into the deep flaws each one carries.
The last novella is the most engaging and frustrating. Tracking, a largely autobiographical piece, chronicles the life of a writer who struggles with depression. The first section, told from a boy's point of view, meanders. Stand-alone childhood memories don't reveal much, but string them together and you gain understanding. As the story shifts to the older writer, the life is more in focus, but incessant name-dropping of literary characters bogs the story down.
The one nit aside, the book is rewarding, well worth the time to dive beneath the surface of the character and go exploring.
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