By Steve Robert Allen
NOVEMBER 23, 1998: It's been a long time between novels for author Jim Harrison, a former food critic for Esquire magazine and the man behind the novella which became the film Legends of the Fall. In his first full-length work of fiction in 10 years, Harrison picks up the threads of his last, Dalva, and offers the rest of that heroine's history, also visiting her grandfather and introducing Nelse, the son whom Dalva gives up in the first book.
For Harrison's fans, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to discover that The Road Home tells its story from a variety of perspectives, including that of Dalva and a host of her family members.
The book opens with Dalva's grandfather, John Northridge, although
the author does not shy from trying on a female voice. Northridge
takes up the first third of the book, offering a fuller explanation
of some of the history offered up in Dalva, also covering
background for the rest of the novel. He admits that his hard-
If you haven't read Dalva, there's really no reason to
fear. That book, although wildly popular, had some weaknesses
which Harrison overcomes with his
In particular, Dalva and the other female characters--as well as their male counterparts, in fact--are all drawn in full, vibrant strokes, as opposed to the flat sketches which have sometimes marred Harrison's work. And for those who imagine that this Harrison fellow--whose reputation as a hard liver is not so divergent from the character Northridge--suffers from a case of testosterone poisoning, The Road Home should lay such concerns to rest.
Harrison kicks off the second part of his new novel with the following words: "I was pretty sure I felt the earth moving beneath my back. The sensation happened several times within an hour or so. The stars were wiggling a bit and intermittently blurred, my vision addled by fever: Virgo with Spica, Leo and Regulus, Boötes less defined except by overwhelming Arcturus."
It cannot be an accident that our introduction to Nelse inevitably recalls Hemingway and his conception of the natural man. But Harrison manages to save us--and himself--from the myths of Papa. Nelse is suffering a fever, coaxing our sympathy for this character who has strong ties to both art and nature. We learn from Nelse that the natural world has fed his soul throughout his life--a difficult life for a boy and then man whose inherited temperament ranges from his grandfather's unruly, native ways to his mother's kind patience with almost all things living.
The place where Harrison may lose people is, in turn, neither in his strong masculine imaginings nor the fact that this 400-plus-page opus has arrived in stores a decade after its prequel. What may cloud some people's enjoyment of this powerful book are the author's strong reliance on the details of the natural world, references to contemporary environmental history (say, the last 50 years) and a series of near-private landmarks, including works of literature and genuine marks on the land.
Thankfully, there is an antidote to this malady. The cure can be derived from Harrison's elaborate structure of internal monologues, those articulate thoughts his characters rarely release to the air.
Reading with care, studying it over time, is guaranteed to ratchet up the pleasure of experiencing this book. And Harrison, who ranks among America's great contemporary novelists--and who has just come out with a new edition of poems to boot--understands the strengths of the written word and the charm which attends concentration.
As the author puts it: "A friendly, somewhat overeducated twit once told me that the reward of patience is patience." In this manner, The Road Home, which takes as its landscape the human heart, death and the natural world, marks a journey along life's blue highways that is well worth taking. (Atlantic Monthly Press, cloth, $25)
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