Many of the best contemporary writers have never written (or at least published) a single short story. Cormac McCarthy immediately comes to mind, and several other names quickly follow: Toni Morrison, Paul Auster, Robert Stone, William Gaddis. The list goes on. There are exceptions—writers who have concentrated solely, and with unwavering fidelity, on the short story, including Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, and Stuart Dybek.
Although Jim Harrison is known best as a novelist, he occasionally narrows the scope of his storytelling powers in an effort to scale down plot and action—the sibling conventions of the typical Harrison novel (excluding his densest, most complex novel, Dalva )—in favor of a more streamlined narrative that finds its expression best in the shape of the novella. The novella has intrigued the world’s greatest writers (Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, William Gass). Among the top ranks of contemporary writers, the novella remains that rarest of half-breeds, a bird that once flourished, then plummeted to near extinction, even though writers such as Harrison, Rick Bass, Andre Dubus, and Ellen Gilchrist are attempting to save it.
In Julip, Harrison’s third and most recent collection of three long stories, he continues to breathe new life into the lost art of the novella. Although the canvas is small (two of these novellas run under one hundred pages), here Harrison appears willing to expand the boundaries of his imagination. Prior to the appearance of Legends of the Fall in 1979, Harrison’s previous work romped over familiar stomping grounds: the backwoods country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, all-night forays in mid-1970’s Key West. These novels were built around whiskey, dope, and the bedding down of beautiful women—moments, it should be noted, that rise above the inherent pitfalls of country-western music, lifted by the lyricism and lucidity of Harrison’s prose. In Legends of the Fall, though, he broadened the scope of his vision by allowing his imagination to take him into interior Mexico (“Revenge”), corporate New York (“The Man Who Gave Up His Name”), and pre-World War I Montana (“Legends of the Fall”). Each of these stories possesses a mythic quality, a larger than actual life dimension—the first sure sign that Harrison is a master, a writer who will last. The publication of Legends of the Fall, which is Harrison’s most publicized book (two of the novellas have been adapted into Hollywood films), was a turning point in his career. The books that followed—most notably Sundog (1984), Dalva, and The Woman Lit by Fireflies (1990)—as well as Harrison’s seven books of poetry, earned for him further critical and commercial success. Critic Bernard Levin climbed out on a ledge when he claimed that Harrison is a “writer with immortality in him.” Harrison’s permanence still remains to be seen. One thing is certain: With each subsequent new book—as he proves once again in Julip—Harrison continues to break new ground, ground that always comes up fertile.
It is true that Harrison’s early work is shadowed and perhaps even shackled by Ernest Hemingway’s ghost. Harrison, who was born and reared and continues to live and sometimes to write about places and rivers immortalized by the postwar wanderings of Nick Adams, is fond of taking brazen jabs at Hemingway, proclaiming much of his work dated, worn to parody over time. Unlike Hemingway (whose later work, aside from A Moveable Feast , is stiff and stilted), Harrison is determined not to repeat himself. Nowhere does this desire to find a new story to inhabit assume a more palpable presence than in Dalva, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and Julip, books that explore the roles that strong, vivacious women play in the lives of men who desperately need to be saved.
The men in these three novellas, most of whom are over forty, find themselves in the crisis-stricken grips of middle age. In “Julip,” the three main male players (to whom the narrator refers as the Boys)—a painter, writer, and photographer—ritually head down to Key West to play out their boyish fantasies as faux outdoorsmen. They spend their days fishing for tarpon and tooting cocaine under a sun that scalds bald spots; at night they hop from bar to bar in their pursuit of that not-so-elusive bed partner. The morning after, hung over, they manage to find time for telephone calls home to their wives. Twenty-one-year-old Julip, a dog trainer, eventually gets involved with all three of these men, and all of them court her with gifts and money and false promises of marriage. These are men...
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