Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Road Warrior

By Bruce VanWyngarden

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

The Road Home, by Jim Harrison, Atlantic Monthly Press, 446 pp., $25

This sprawling novel begins on the Nebraska frontier at the close of the 19th century and follows various members of the Northridge family through the travails of the next 100 years or so. Their stories intertwine and overlap – tragically, humorously, and heroically – sometimes in ways that stretch plausibility, but Harrison has always been a writer for whom plausibility is less essential than passion. In his fiction, art, true love, and the natural world are the highest truths, trumping conventional middle-class mores like rock crushes scissors.

Five family members narrate The Road Home: patriarch John Northridge; his great-grandson Nelse, his daughter-in-law Naomi; his son Paul; and finally, his granddaughter Dalva. (A diagram of the family tree is helpfully included in the book’s preface.) The opening section, in which John revisits the long arc of his life in luminous detail, sets the family essentials in place: his father’s marriage to his Lakota Indian mother; life in the remote Nebraska north country; a love of nature–horses, dogs, birds – and an unbroken lineage of fierce independence, manifested in fighting, drinking, nomadic travel, and hopeless romance.

And make no mistake about it, Harrison is a hopeless romantic, albeit one with as much foolish testosterone as foolish sentiment. It’s a combination that has informed almost all of his prior fiction, most notably, perhaps, Legends of the Fall and A Good Day to Die. Harrison’s heroes – and his heroines –seldom have an easy time of it when it comes to love. The objects of their affection are married, doomed, cloistered by an over-protective family, or, in the case of John Northridge’s suicidal one true love, Adelle, just a little wacky. Here’s John remembering one of their afternoons together: “I was trying to sketch her on the rockpile with the calf off to the side, but she wouldn’t hold still because she was trying to catch some of the black snakes that always sunned themselves on the rockpile. She couldn’t catch any of the larger ones before they slipped away but then she knelt in the grass and caught several very small ones, cupping their writhing bodies in her hands until they became quite still. She swiveled from the waist, turning toward me with a rather mad smile, and raised her cupped hands like a supplicant and placed the infant snakes on her thick hair where they became alarmed, with one wriggling down her forehead until it fell in her lap, and the others down her shoulders and back. ‘I’m the Medusa,’ she laughed....”

Of course she is. And she is everything John Northridge wants: brilliant, neurotic, and erotic. Ultimately, of course, she is unattainable, a woman for whom the world is just too much to bear. Her death shapes Northridge’s life, destroys his youthful innocence, and turns him from art to commerce, where he succeeds almost despite himself. It is only in the last months of his life, as he tells his tale, that he returns to the truths he once intuitively knew. He begins painting again; he looks up boyhood friends; he wanders the hills; he makes love for the last time.

In the book’s next section, we meet John’s illegitimate great-grandson, Nelse, in the full flush of youth. He’s a claustrophobic naturalist who drives around the country sleeping under the stars. He’s also looking for his mother, John Northridge’s granddaughter, Dalva, who gave him up at birth. Not so surprisingly, he drinks, gets into fights, and finally, falls in love with a married woman.

Nelse’s story serves as a bridge to bring the Northridge saga full circle. He finds his grandmother, still living on the family ranch in Nebraska, and then at long last his mother, Dalva, who is dying of cancer. Dalva’s story is the novel’s most affecting vignette. She faces her death by recounting her life, but also by naming “things she has loved about the earth.” These range from “New York at 3 a.m.” to “Mexican music,” to “the strange looks of animals making love.”

One suspects that there is much of Harrison himself in this list.

The author indulges himself – and his characters – with lots of anecdotes of seemingly trivial events, but somehow these incidents, like paint on a canvas, build upon each other. As each family member tells their tale, events are seen from fresh perspectives, and they resonate anew, like stories retold at a family reunion.

The Road Home is Harrison’s most fully realized book – a humorous, melancholy, and wise exploration of his central theme: Namely, that the road home – life itself – is short, so take your shoes off and feel the earth. In so doing, we just may learn how to die.

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