In four previous novella collections, Jim Harrison has proved himself a master of this short, slightly off-beat literary form. Unforgettable...

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“The Summer He Didn’t Die”
by Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly Press, 277 pp., $24

In four previous novella collections, Jim Harrison has proved himself a master of this short, slightly off-beat literary form. Unforgettable characters, outlandish situations and thematic leaps are the author’s stock in trade — all anchored by a deeply felt compassion for his characters. In this engaging new collection, his characters contend with more serious circumstances, and they are forced to draw deeply on their inner resolve.

For no one is this more true than Brown Dog, hero of the title story. A Chippewa Indian pulp-cutter from upper Michigan, Brown Dog is well known to Harrison’s readers. In an earlier novella, he hijacked the preserved corpse of an Indian in a stolen ice truck. In another, he gave away the location of an ancestral native burial ground to a sexy young archaeologist, then staged a raid on their camp.

Brown Dog returns here, having recently escaped a prison sentence by promising to provide for his two stepchildren while their drug-addicted mother remains in jail. Things heat up when he resolves to save his young stepdaughter, Berry, who is affected with fetal alcohol syndrome, from institutionalization in another part of the state.

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Berry is an innocent, a remarkable wild child who can mimic dozens of bird calls. But Brown Dog is distraught over her fate in the hands of well-meaning bureaucrats. “What will become of her,” he asks, “in a world that has so little room for outcasts?”

Brown Dog draws some unlikely allies to his cause, including his full-blood Chippewa uncle who offers wise and wacky observations, a sympathetic social worker with whom Brown Dog falls hopelessly in love and an outlaw Indian biker gang.

In “Republican Wives,” three girlhood friends who attended prep school and college together reunite at a Yucatan resort under less-than-ideal circumstances. They each had married successful but emotionally bankrupt husbands. And they inadvertently shared the same lover, a manipulative and self-obsessed poet from their college days. After suffering untold emotional abuse and betrayal, Martha, one of the wives, opts to put an end to her agony by dropping an overdose of Elavil into the poet’s morning coffee.

We view these misadventures through the wives’ revealing, often hilarious first-person narratives. Surprisingly, each fleshes out a character of complexity, nuance and candid wit. Remarks one of another’s husband, “He reminds me of a funeral director who thinks of everyone he meets as a potential customer.”

Their combined sketch of Daryl, the poet, is classic Harrison. Sending up self-important scholars, professors and artists has been a house specialty for the author, but with Daryl he reaches new heights — or depths. Martha describes Daryl as a fantastically inventive liar: “I could exhaust myself with name calling — pervert, con-man, thief, sadist, wicked little boy, Svengali, Rasputin … a cad, a gigolo.” Daryl proves himself worthy on all counts, yet remains vulnerable and pathetically human. Nonetheless, by the story’s end we’re solidly on the side of the defense.

The last novella, “Tracking,” is a strangely autobiographical tale, told in the third person, covering the author’s life from childhood to the present. Harrison seems to have mined his recent memoir “Off to the Side” to excellent effect. The condensed format focuses on themes that shaped his life and work, and his unlikely path to literary success makes a compelling story. A larger-than-life presence on the American literary scene, Harrison always has been one of his own best characters. In this concise novella, part fiction, part memoir, he may be giving us the truer story.

Harrison’s joyous humanity shines through these stories, along with a generous measure of earned wisdom.