Jim Harrison Short Fiction Analysis
As a storyteller who experiments with form, Jim Harrison tells stories in a variety of modes. He borrows techniques and literary conventions from romance, adventure, mystery, and comedy. He does not utilize these categories, however, in a formulaic manner, but instead he modifies the conventions of literary genre to dramatize contemporary difficulties.
Harrison is often accused of writing “macho fiction.” Some critics agree that, if viewed superficially, the stories appear to be rhetorically macho—rendered from a mythic male viewpoint. In these stories, however, the opposite is true. Although his characters display a penchant for sex, violence, and the sporting life, they do not derive any benefit from their macho behavior. In fact, either they become isolated and lonely, or their dignity and integrity are lost.
In Revenge, the first novella in Legends of the Fall, the persona weaves a violent tale of vengeance, friendship, and love between three people: Cochran, a former fighter pilot; Tibey, a gangster struggling to legitimize himself; and Miryea, Tibey’s beautiful wife. As the tale unfolds, Cochran, the protagonist, develops a friendship with Tibey, a powerful and rich Mexican businessman; the friendship results in a dangerous liaison between Cochran and Miryea. Tibey is obsessed with two things: tennis and his beautiful upper-class wife—not because he loves her but because she provides a degree of status for him in the so-called legitimate world.
The story begins in medias res with vultures hovering over the battered naked body of Cochran, who lies dying in the Mexican desert as a coyote nearby watches curiously. The narrative persona informs the reader that “Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.” The natural world is viewed from an objective perspective in Harrison’s fiction, and, like the coyote looking on objectively, nature’s presence signifies a detached and impersonal environment. Within this environment, Cochran and Tibey find themselves confused and isolated.
A narrative pattern unfolds from Cochran’s point of view when a Mexican worker and his daughter find Cochran in the desert. They deliver him to a mission, where he is nursed back to life by Diller, a Mennonite missionary doctor. Cochran’s restoration is slow and painful, as are his memories when he begins to recover. Eventually, Cochran and Tibey must have a showdown. Before Cochran’s brutal encounter with Tibey, readers see him several evenings earlier in a bar drinking with a friend. Cochran talks too much about his relationship with Miryea. His friend listens patiently, but when he realizes that Miryea is Tibey’s wife, he turns pale with fear, and he informs Cochran that Tibey is a Spanish sobriquet for tiburon, “the shark.”
Tibey learns of the affair at the same time that Cochran wins a tennis tournament. He is delighted with Cochran’s win and sends him several thousand dollars and a one-way ticket to Paris. This gift, however, is a veiled warning to leave Miryea alone. Cochran and Miryea, however, have already made arrangement to spend a few days at a mountain cabin in Mexico while Tibey is away on business. Unbeknown to the lovers, Tibey and his henchmen have followed them. Miryea is disfigured by Tibey and forced to watch as Cochran is beaten senseless; she is then drugged and delivered to a brothel, where she is kept against her will. Cochran is pulled from the trunk of a car and left to die in the desert.
As Cochran recovers, he is obsessed with finding Miryea and getting revenge against Tibey. Tibey, unable to assuage his guilt for the brutal treatment that Miryea received, has her placed in a nunnery, where she ultimately dies from sorrow and the abuse she received in the brothel. The tale ends in bitter irony when Cochran finally corners Tibey. Tibey asks for an apology, which Cochran gives him; the two men part in misery, realizing that revenge, as the old Sicilian proverb says, “is a dish better served cold.” Engaged in this kind of macho behavior, each man loses his love, integrity, and dignity; each is left in the depths of despair.
The Man Who Gave Up His Name
The following novella, The Man Who Gave Up His Name, focuses on Nordstrom, a man who at forty-three is in a midlife crisis. He is a man whose passions consist of cooking and dancing alone in his apartment to “work up a dense sweat and to feel the reluctant body become fluid and graceful.” The dance metaphorically represents Nordstrom’s life, for this dance, as readers later learn, is a dance for survival. Nordstrom has all the trappings of success; he has plenty of money, a beautiful wife, and his daughter, a university student, is intelligent and lovely. This ideal existence is set up for the reader through flashback via Nordstrom’s perspective—a literary convention that Harrison uses to establish the central character’s point of view.
Ultimately, though, Nordstrom’s classic American Dream disintegrates when his wife divorces him, and even though his daughter loves him, she considers him a dolt. He is further distressed by the death of his father, which makes him think of his own mortality. During these events, Nordstrom asks himself the question that modern human beings have been asking since the Industrial Revolution, “What if what I’ve been doing all my life has been totally wrong,” and he begins his quest to discover the answer.
The story takes a violent and surprising turn at the end, when Nordstrom decides to give his money away and take a long trip. He views his achievements and successes with disdain and thinks that giving away his money will help him turn his life around. At a graduation dinner for his daughter, Sonia, he embarrassingly attempts to give her fifteen thousand dollars in one-hundred-dollar bills for a new car, an act for which he is rebuked by his former wife, Laura, whom he has not seen in four years. Inevitably, Sonia refuses the money, making him regret even more what he feels he has become—a kind of middle-aged fop. The violent twist occurs when Sarah, a beautiful waitress and dancer—after whom Nordstrom lusts when he sees her during forays into his New York neighborhood—is invited to the dinner party by one of Sonia’s friends.
A ruckus ensues when an Italian, who looks like “a cutout from the movies of a gangster psychopath,” enters accompanied by a large black man; together, they bodily remove Sarah, but not before Nordstrom strikes the black man and is threatened with a gun held by the Italian. After the party, Nordstrom realizes that he is being set up when Sarah telephones, asking if they can meet. They have lunch together and return to Nordstrom’s room, where they have sex. Afterward, Sarah demands...
(The entire section is 2820 words.)