Grime and grit fill the contours of the six novellas in “Brown Dog” like grout fills a tile floor. With exhaustive detail, Jim Harrison’s story of a flawed, seldom heroic Michigan derelict makes equal efforts to charm and repulse. It’s nearly a homeowner’s guide for a sex-crazed alcoholic life on the skids.
Yes, that’s part of the appeal. But Harrison’s how-to of slimy behavior requires a huge investment before it pays off. Grab some waders. Take a deep breath. Expect a slog before finding any bright parts.
Amid madcap episodes of sexual harassment, fugitive border crossings and Native American mysticism, Harrison depicts the sins of an unsalvageable modern world. Humanity is doomed to be crushed and squeezed among piles of synthetic junk; that leaves the rivers, streams and roaming wilderness as our only escape route. The novel’s ultimate suggestion that we just hibernate our hopeless modernity away is bleak yet oddly beautiful. It’s similar to Harrison’s previously published “The River Swimmer,” albeit without a note of hope. Each character gets scummier and less redeemable than the last, hero included, so it’s hard to know where to hang one’s hopes.
Titular character Brown Dog, aka B.D., from the get-go is stuck in a pitiable mess. At 47, B.D. has an unruly head of hair, an unquenchable thirst for love and few other possessions. He ekes out a livelihood repairing rental deer cabins in the off season in exchange for shelter. Each day’s ambition seldom goes beyond buying a six-pack and finding someone new to sleep with. These shortcomings combined with huge appetites put him in constant trouble, beginning with the first novella when he betrays the location of a secret native burial ground to Shelley, an enticing anthropologist. That juvenile sell-out sets the tone for all his other misadventures.
After a stint with Native Activists lead by his friend Lone Marten, B.D. flees jail time and his hometown of Grand Marais County. Later he chases Lone Marten to Los Angeles to reclaim a precious bear skin heirloom, and later still he flees to Canada to protect his adopted daughter, Berry. Near the end, there’s a sojourn to a Montana horse ranch. Each journey ends without real consequence — even adopting two kids just blows over somehow. Like any Saturday morning cartoon, whatever happened to B.D. yesterday gets fixed immediately before the next adventure starts.
The one exception comes in the first novella, which features a surreal encounter with an Indian chief preserved on the bed of Lake Superior. It’s a rich moment that echoes throughout B.D.’s psychological and social life. This first novella is by far the strongest; taut, exciting and intriguing. The others feel directionless in comparison.
Nomadic, or maybe just allergic to restraint, B.D. has no permanent home or ID greater than a driver’s license. Despite his hazy beliefs on heritage (as an orphan he only partly believes in his Chippewa ancestry), his many quests are tinged with native mysticism and animal spirits. But the magic and bear medicine clash with his skeezy objectives. Mostly the novel is split between drinking scenes, sex scenes and Great Lakes wilderness retreats. With such conflicts, the writing often feels as adrift as the hero’s quasi-homeless existence.
It’s easy to sympathize with B.D.’s tensions with modern living, his yearning to go wild despite his many addictions. Less easy to stomach is the juvenile rut he wallows in throughout most of the book. Too much of the text sings praise of B.D. ogling women, B.D. sleeping with women, B.D. escaping to the woods, and repeat. The incessant pattern gets uncomfortable, like a creepy uncle who won’t lay off the blue jokes at the dinner table.
Even more distastefully, the novel depicts nearly all female characters as props or prostitutes. Shelley is just the first example. B.D. receives sex for a sacred burial ground, for home repairs, for food, and in one instance for surrogate fatherhood. All the while the book insists that he’s an innocent, lovable goof at the mercy of countless temptresses.
Does a lovable goof try to look up his social worker’s skirt 10 times? Or grope every stranger? At some point rooting for Brown Dog becomes impossible. Much of Harrison’s writing is beautiful and meticulous, but it’s a lonely trek without a single likeable companion.
There are pieces to love in “Brown Dog,” but only after a dirty, clammy dig. There’s some wonderment in dipping into such an anti-hero’s mind, with pond scum caked on every sordid pilgrimage between the city and the woods. It’s a grueling read and a very mixed bag.
Grove Press, $27