Arts & Culture
11:37 am
Thu February 27, 2014

Book Review: Jim Harrison's 'Brown Dog: Novellas'

Southard says the character Brown Dog is representative of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Southard says the character Brown Dog is representative of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Credit Grove Press

In Michigan one of the things we all accept are the supposed differences between the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. The stereotypes haunt the residents of both regions: rural versus urban; those who are stressed versus those who are relaxed; those happy with money versus those happy in long underwear.

Heck, the UP-ers sometimes even talk differently!

And one thing the Upper Peninsula has that the Lower Peninsula could never hope to have is its own literary genre. Honestly, any story that happens in our “normal” Lower Peninsula could happen in any state in the Midwest. You take out the city names and it might as well be set in Ohio. But a story set in the U.P. is a unique entity unto itself. The characters, the pace, the trials, the almost magical realism of the environment... well… that’s UP Lit.

One of the godfathers of this unique genre is Michigan Notable Book author Jim Harrison. Yes, Mr. Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan and doesn’t even live in our state anymore, but the U.P. is still represented in much of his writing, including his new collection of novellas called “Brown Dog.”

For those new to Harrison’s work, Brown Dog, or BD as his friends call him, is Harrison’s everyman character, an adult Huck Finn-like soul, perfectly happy to drink a six pack in the morning, live alone in a cabin, and spend an entire day fishing. He does occasional odd jobs, doesn’t have a social security number, and women strangely find him irresistible. Harrison has been writing about Brown Dog for over 20 years, and in this new collection, all of his novellas on this very UP Lit character are finally put together.

Over the course of these tales, we see BD betray his Native American ancestors, run away to Los Angeles, return and become a parent, travel with an Indian rock band, and then retire with his lesbian-wife.

Sadly, for me, reading this collection felt like a missed opportunity. With a little time and energy, these novellas could have been reworked and edited into one novel. Instead, a decision was made not to do that, and the shift from novella to novella can feel a little jarring, since we are jumping around, sometimes by years, from when each were written.

A better way to describe this book is to think of it like a box set for a TV show. And just like watching TV episodes back to back in a marathon, you can get frustrated by recaps of past events you just experienced and re-introductions of characters that feel unnecessary, not to mention wonder about characters that Harrison just decided keep out of the later stories.

Another problem with a collection like this is that not all of the episodes are equal. While there is almost a mad glee in Harrison’s writing in the first novella, by the last, you feel as tired as Harrison seems to feel with the character as he limps like an old dog to the last page. The BD at the end is definitely not the same as the character we meet at the beginning. Time and age have changed him, leaving him and the stories feeling more like a bland shell of his past glory. 

“Brown Dog” feels more like a goodbye than a hello. It’s a book for Jim Harrison fans, not for those who want to discover his writing. And as much as I may have complained about this book, the fact is a character like BD could only come from a land like the Upper Peninsula, making him a unique part of our own local literary movement. Something new is coming from the Upper Peninsula and long underwear is not necessary.

Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels “A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.

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