‘Brown Dog: Novellas’
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 528 pp., $27
Beginning with 1979s “Legends of the Fall,” Michigan-based novelist and poet Jim Harrison has shown himself to be a master of the novella form. Through five novella collections that followed, the delightful and maddening character of Brown Dog, a Chippewa Indian pulp-cutter from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has become one of Harrison’s best-loved creations.
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This volume gathers the previously published misadventures of Brown Dog (or “B.D.” as he’s called) and adds a new novella that sees B.D. settled into a distinctly unorthodox middle age.
It stands among Harrison’s best work.
In fact, Brown Dog and Harrison share a few traits. They both have a passion for an unencumbered life of fishing and hunting the north woods, a taste for wild game and a fondness for spirits. But as a mixed-blood who grew up in rural poverty without benefit of parents or education, Brown Dog is also saddled with a checkered work history and a propensity for scrapes with the law. He lacks a permanent address and his relations with women are for the most part disastrous.
In the opening novella, B.D. discovers a perfectly preserved Indian dressed in traditional regalia while salvage diving in the deep waters of Lake Superior. Calamity ensues as he tries to cash in on the find by peddling the body in Chicago from the back of a stolen ice truck.
In “The Seven-Ounce Man,” B.D. becomes involved in an equally outrageous if less opportunistic errand: protecting an Indian burial ground, “the only Hopewell site in the northern Midwest.” It is a matter of honor for B.D. He was seduced into disclosing its whereabouts by an ambitious young anthropologist. Misguided reparation involves burning down the anthropologist’s field camp (and narrowly escaping a felony conviction).
B.D.’s love life fares no better. At 42 he marries his childhood sweetheart, Rose. Never mind that Rose “had never offered a gesture of affection in their youth, and she wasn’t overly forthcoming in the present.” In Harrison’s words, “she was born mean, captious, sullen, with occasional small dirty windows of charm.”
But B.D.’s connection with her children, including her fetal alcohol-afflicted daughter, Berry, is heartfelt and enduring. It opens a meaningful chapter in his otherwise chaotic life.
In a later story, B.D. resolves to rescue Berry from institutionalization while her drug-addicted mother is in jail. Berry does not speak. She is an innocent, a “woodland creature” who can mimic dozens of bird calls.
Brown Dog, distraught over her fate at the hands of well-meaning bureaucrats, conscripts some unlikely allies to his cause. Included among them is his Chippewa Uncle Delmore, a delightful character of wry wisdom and bawdy humor, and Gretchen, a sympathetic social worker with whom B.D. falls predictably and hopelessly in love.
It’s in Brown Dog’s relationships, with the young and vulnerable and the old and irascible, that Harrison teases out his character’s nobility. At the same time, as with all of Harrison’s offbeat characters, B.D. is clearly his own worst enemy.
In the final, previously unpublished story, Brown Dog gleans some secrets of his past, and his future assumes a direction that will surprise Harrison’s readers. I for one will miss the antics of the younger scamp. On the other hand, if B.D. can find redemption, there must be hope for the rest of us.
Olympic Peninsula author Tim McNulty’s latest book is the poetry collection “Ascendance” (Pleasure Boat Studio)