The Beast God Forgot to Invent
by Jim Harrison
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
256 pages, 2000
Buy it online
A Man’s Man’s World
Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith
In case you didn't know it, Jim Harrison has rather quietly become the 60-something schoolyard bully of American fiction, turning language and culture upside down and shaking it out for lunch money.
While lifelong Michigander Harrison makes no bones about his preference for poetry over fiction (he was an established poet before, at the suggestion of friend Thomas McGuane, he tried his hand at prose), the author's consistent production of novels and novellas over the last three decades has garnered most of the critical attention. In his fiction, Harrison employs themes as various as the wanton destruction of the environment, a refiguring of Native American history and the anatomy of failed marriages. He combines the grace and terse elegance of poetry with narratives that range from collections of diary entries to a pastiche of detective fiction.
Harrison has written seven novels. In that time, he has also become the most prolific American practitioner of the novella, approached in the genre only by fantasist Steven Millhauser. The Beast God Forgot to Invent represents the 10th through 12th novellas in the body of Harrison's work and cements his reputation as a versatile, astute and fearless commentator on American culture, specifically, and the foibles of humanity in general. In the collection, the author takes on some common (for Harrison) enemies: Hollywood, mass culture, pretense, the federal government, workshop writers and their teachers. In short, any institution or profession that deigns to impose artificial order on a world whose exquisite chaos, to Harrison's mind, should rather be lauded and lived in.
The anchor story of the three-novella collection is I Forgot to Go to Spain, a first-person account of a writer who has spent his life churning out 100-page "Bioprobes" on famous personalities from Henry Kissinger to Linus Pauling to Michael Eisner (the one that finally drives him over the edge). Despite monetary success, two nonevents in the narrator's life bother him profoundly: a nine-day marriage to a college sweetheart who remains indelible in his mind and the fact that he has never been to Spain, whose artists' romantic ideals he had emulated as a young writer.
After a short, staid reunion with his ex-wife, Cindy, who has remarried twice, raised a family and is a successful grower of rare and delicate flowers, the protagonist decides that he will go to Spain after all, a notion that turns out not as well as he had imagined: he spends only 49 hours in the country on that first trip, having forgotten to have his passport stamped at customs upon his arrival. Finally, back in Paris, he prepares another break to Spain and is able to reconcile a blur of failed relationships and a paint-by-the-numbers writing life with a future that is as freeform as the jazz that he listens to in the Rue de St.-Jacques. "You might wonder what listening to Miles Davis tunes at midnight in Paris has to do with anything," he muses, "but the question emerges from our vain effort to make everything fit together."
The collection's title story opens with a line that only Harrison could (or would want to) write: "The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense." What follows is a response to a coroner's inquest, penned by retired book dealer Norman Arnz, of the short life and ambivalent death of Joseph Lacort, an acquaintance whose brain was scrambled in a collision with a beech tree. Lacort, whose condition prevents him from remembering anything about his day-to-day existence, lives in the wilderness of Upper Peninsula Michigan as a half-animal; his senses are preternaturally keen and in tune with his surroundings, as evidenced, Arnz recounts, by Lacort's eagerness "to show me the one-hundred thirty-seven water sounds he had logged in his notebook."
In his fiction, Harrison very often grounds both poetry and prose on wilderness and man's place in it and the protagonist's unique condition allows Harrison to take that vision to its logical, if extreme, conclusion: Arnz, the narrator, rails against the Department of Natural Resources for unnecessarily hounding the stricken Lacort, while Lacort believes strongly in his own mind that he has "seen something quite extraordinary, a brand-new mammalian species, a beast that he didn't know existed." At the same time, Arnz laments the fact that he lives -- and has lived very well indeed -- in a venal society that privileges the material life over the life of the mind. He relates to the coroner, who has become something of an absent confessor in the course of the narrative, that "I am scarcely interesting even to myself. I am the personification of Modern Man, the toy buyer who tries to thrive at the crossroads of his boredom."
While Joe Lacort's drowning death is a blessing for Lacort and those around him, Arnz realizes the implications for the individual of the destruction of a man who is not given the freedom to live apart from society's rules. "Like any other mammal I am trying, moment by moment, to think of what I should do next," he writes in his final lines to the coroner. "Joe had left us to ourselves."
The middle narrative in the collection, Westward Ho, is the third appearance in Harrison's dozen novellas of Brown Dog, an Upper Peninsula ne'er-do-well who finds himself in Hollywood in search of a bearskin rug. Brown Dog knows that Lone Marten, the head of a group of Native Americans who fight to protect a Michigan burial ground from university excavators, has stolen the rug that Brown Dog's uncle Delmore gave him years before. In the process of retrieving it, Brown Dog becomes a chauffeur for big-shot Hollywood screenwriter Bob Duluth, who is connected to his new driver by his own run-ins with the law and serendipity. The two disparate souls become close through their misadventures, and Brown Dog recovers his bearskin rug. Along the way, Brown Dog is seduced by an aspiring French actress and he breaks into the fortress-like home of Hollywood's most powerful producer to retrieve the bearskin.
Brown Dog's reward for navigating the improbable mission is the responsibility of helping to raise the children of his ex-love Rose and, most importantly, the opportunity to immerse himself once more in his beloved Michigan wilderness.
Harrison's heart and soul are abundantly clear in these stories. Two of the protagonists either spend their entire lives thriving in the Michigan wilderness or languish trying to get back; the other is a romantic, like Harrison himself, who seeks nothing more than respite from a society that profoundly displeases him. No surprise that two of the author's favorite words are "banal" and "venal." Harrison's vision, always critical of society's inanities and more than a bit existential, is especially pointed in all three stories.
The writing is aphoristic, the images sharp. Even the descriptions that don't pack the punch of some others are distinctly Harrison, a characteristic much more often good than bad. The female characters he has written in the past, strong as they are (for instance, Dalva, from the novel of the same name; Clare, from the Woman Lit by Fireflies; Julip, from the novella of the same name), take a back seat in this collection. Still, The Beast God Forgot to Invent will be familiar to readers who know Harrison's work: the characters' world-weariness is pervasive and the author's verbal railing is replete with the sort of post-Beat introspection that drew people to Harrison's fiction in the first place.
Despite the simple plotting -- a result of both the length limitations of the genre and Harrison's own will -- the richness of detail in these stories is astounding and even a bit overwhelming. Harrison has never been shy about his bull-in-a-bookshop attitude and the effect of the well-placed literary reference (find a page without mention of a great writer or an important book and you win the prize). Without question, he has outdone himself here.
The very qualities of Harrison's work that bring gasps of admiration from an increasing audience of devoted followers are also the traits that elicit shrugs from a dwindling mob of detractors: at first glance, the fiction is desultory, exploring the randomness of human experience; the men (who spend much of their time hunting and fishing and drinking and brooding and exercising their libidos) and women (who spend much of their time trying to piece together remnants of their broken pasts and carving out successful lives for themselves and exercising their libidos) are too real, the kind of people who cheat on one another, physically and psychically abuse one another and occasionally even kill one another.
The message that comes out of these three stories is one that owes a debt to William Faulkner, one of Harrison's favorite writers: Survive, and feel life at every moment, in every sinew of your being; once you're dead, you'll stay dead a long time. | November 2000
Patrick A. Smith has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He currently lives and works in Tallahassee, Florida. His collection of essays on Jim Harrison's fiction is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press.