Grave Thoughts 

Jim Harrison's new novel? Bear with me.

In a glowing review in The New York Times of Jim Harrison's ninth and newest novel, Returning to Earth, the reviewer, Will Blythe, itemizes what he calls "Jim Harrison's Five Rules for Zestful Living," based on Harrison's celebrated body of work. Those rules are:

1) "Eat well ... avoiding the ninny diets and mincing cuisines that demonize appetite and make unthinkable a tasty snack of hog jowls."

2) "Pursue love and sex. ... Doing it outdoors on stumps, in clearings and even swarmed by mosquitoes is particularly recommended."

3) "Welcome animals, especially bears, ravens and wolves, into your waking and dream life."

4) "Rather than lighting out for territory, we ought to try living in it."

5) "[L]ove the detour. Take the longest route between two points, since the journey is the thing, a notion to which ... we all pay lip service but few of us indulge."

I don't know about you, but I'm good for four out of five. Yes, I've eaten hog jowl. Yes, I've welcomed animals into my life -- dogs, though, not bears, ravens, and wolves. And yes, whatever the "territory," I guess I've tried living in it. But no, I've never had sex on a stump. But yes, I've indulged in a detour. I have taken the longest route between two points: the seemingly unending distance between page 1 and page 280 of Returning to Earth. Where did the journey, which is the "thing," get me? To wondering.

In Part I of the book, we follow the dictation of Donald, who is 45 and in a sick bed dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. He's part-Chippewa, used to work in construction, and lives in Marquette, Michigan -- way up in the Upper Peninsula. His wife Cynthia, 44, is the one taking down Donald's words, and during the course of that dictation we learn that Donald and Cynthia are the parents of a son named Herald (a grad student in mathematics at Caltech) and a daughter named Clare, who also lives in California and wants to work for wardrobe in the movie business. Clare is carrying off and on (has been since the two were teenagers) with K, who attends the University of Michigan. That's "K" for Kenneth, the son of Polly, who used to be married to David, who is Cynthia's brother, which makes Clare and K step-cousins -- step-cousins, not cousins, because K's biological father was a Vietnam vet who used to be married to Polly, but he died in a motorcycle accident. As for David, he's in love with Vera, who lives in Mexico, the country she fled to, pregnant, after David's alcoholic father, David Sr., raped her when the girl was 12. (Jesse, Vera's Mexican father, used to work for David Sr. Donald, besides doing construction, worked as David Sr.'s handyman, which is how Donald and Cynthia met.) All this then: background to dying Donald and his Native-American visions of bears and ravens and wolves.

Part II of Returning to Earth is K's side of things, and in this section's closing pages, Herald injects Donald with a lethal dose of phenobarbital mixed with Dilantin, after which Donald is lowered into a grave, Cynthia and Clare at his side, and Donald dies. It's the way he wanted to go. Here's how the rest of Returning to Earth goes:

Part III is David's view of things four months after the death of his brother-in-law. Part IV is Cynthia's view of things five months after the death of her husband.

What do we learn? I'm still wondering. Seems everybody's trying to fill the vacuum created by Donald's noble dying -- except for Clare, who goes from wanting to become a wardrobe mistress to wanting to become a bear, and Flower, Donald's father's Chippewa cousin, is just the woman to teach her metaphysically how. Crazy? It beats the mind-numbingly aimless narrative of interlocking lives we're treated to for a couple hundred pages.

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