You dog, you: masculinity according to Jim Harrison
The Farmer’s Daughter by Jim Harrison. Anansi, 2009. (Grove Atlantic Press for you ‘Mericans.)
Jim Harrison is one of those love-‘em or hate-‘em kind of writers, the love or hate coalescing around a question that’s followed him from the get-go: is he “too macho?”
“Macho” is a label he vehemently rejects, pointing out that in Mexico, this word is reserved for men who express their dominance through gratuitous violence. Fine; the question is, then, is he too masculine?
What are we to make of the extraordinary, unearned sexual success of his male protagonists? Or of the precocious, preternatural sexuality of his adolscents? Are his female protagonists (Dalva, Julip, etc.) manifestations of his ideal female in their forthright sexuality? Indeed, what’s up with all this sex? Is it just male wish fulfilment? (Or, recalling that it is fiction, male wishfulness?)
Or do Dalva and Julip usurp male prerogatives — are they women who actually threaten male dominance? Is the sexuality of his male protagonists a boon, or an affliction? Is Harrison making some kind of point here that some of his critics continually miss?
In the third novella of his latest collection, “The Games of Night,” his narrator muses on that point: “… at odd moments we wonder who we truly are beneath the layers of paint the culture has applied to us.” Harrison has always been after the truth beneath that veneer, the animal within. Perhaps it’s because I read it concurrently with Conversations with Jim Harrison (University of Mississippi Press, 2002), in which Harrison continually answers interviewers on this point — encouraging me to read with more intelligence than my usual lunkish efforts — but it seems he’s never found that animal so convincingly as in The Farmer’s Daughter.
Not that he’s universally successful. The title novella, told from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, is the weakest of the three. Harrison never seems to fully inhabit her consciousness and consequently she doesn’t come to life as richly or as fully as his other protagonists. She is too precocious (which Harrison hangs a lampshade on by continually having people say she’s old beyond her years), and too sexually open to be a believable teenager. While she’s undoubtedly a strong female character (in the same vein as Dalva and Julip), she never quite feels fully realized.
Harrison is far more successful in his reprise of his long-running character, Brown Dog. “Brown Dog Redux” finds BD on the lam, in Toronto, with his daughter Berry, who is rendered mute by fetal alcohol syndrome, and the story follows his return home to Michigan. It seems here that Harrison is putting BD to bed; if so, it’s a fine, and hilarious, exit.
Brown Dog ambles through life in a perpetual state of lazy, masculine befuddlement. He desires women without irony, says his counsellor (and sole true love), Gretchen, and this is why they sleep with him; never has Harrison stated so bluntly what all this sex is about. But BD is not exactly marriage material, and consequently he is abandoned, rejected, and permanently perplexed. He is, as his name implies, just like a big, dopey puppy, and Harrison gets at this idea much more successfully here than he did with Cliff, in his recent novel The English Major, whose befuddled canine goofiness was clearest when waitresses patted him affectionately on the head.
This is Harrison’s vision of masculinity: when we aren’t puppies, we’re dogs. And bearing in mind that dogs have teeth, we can also be wolves. The third novella of this collection, “The Games of Night,” takes up lycanthropy, one of Harrison’s old motifs. Harrison said of his unsuccessful, Hollywood-bastardized screenplay, Wolf (not related to his novel of the same title) that he wished he’d done it as a novella first, so he would have had control of it, and “The Games of Night” seems to be a belated attempt to correct that error.
Harrison’s protagonist is bitten in the neck by a wolf cub at the age of 12, which results in a blood disorder with symptoms only too familiar to Harrison fans: outrageous appetites for food and sex, and a violent disposition which overcomes his better nature, to his later regret. Those appetites wax and wane with the moon, on a monthly cycle; he is not precisely a werewolf, but he is half wolf, or half dog. That this coincides with puberty is hardly coincidental, and interestingly, the narrator continually euphemizes this condition with such expressions as “my monthly affliction,” recalling certain menstrual euphemisms. This is, Harrison asserts, the male condition.
Although the title novella is weaker than the other two, The Farmer’s Daughter is possibly Harrison’s best book, and the clearest expression of his concerns, in years.