Legends of the Fall

by Jim Harrison

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Legends of the Fall

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Legends of the Fall brings to mind an introduction which Tom Wolfe wrote several years ago for a collection of “New Fiction” which had been published in Esquire magazine. After noting the pervasive nihilistic tone of the collection, Wolfe observed that nihilism is now an accepted literary convention, “and conventions in literature are like conventions anywhere else: they are marks of grace and propriety, not wounds of the soul.” The writers of these dark fables, he guesses, are young, “in good animal health,” and “have kept their credit rating up. . . .” The three novellas collected in Legends of the Fall are full of spectacular violence, sickening cruelty, and unredeemed suffering. The author’s long view of the human condition is neatly summarized by an epitaph in the title story:


Yet Legends of the Fall is no encounter with demons; it is a very entertaining book. Much of the pleasure derives from Jim Harrison’s mastery of various literary conventions, as deft and as openly artificial as any sonneteer’s. This is not fiction which aims to make you forget that you are holding a book in your hands. His novellas are rich in lore—detailed and zestful accounts of meals, reminiscent of Dead Souls; names of firearms, never merely an anonymous rifle or shotgun but a Ruger 30.06; and all kinds of odd detail such as one finds in the digressions of Melville or Gogol. There is even a fine description of David Thompson executing a 360-degree slam dunk. The conflict between Harrison’s literary manners and his nihilism creates tension for the reader who does not take nihilism with his tea, who finds Harrison’s sense of human existence ultimately dark and horrifying.

“Nihilism” is perhaps a worn-out word, like “existentialism,” but the belief which it names is quite real. Nihilism is not a belief in something; it is a negation. Introducing his recent translations from the Bible with an essay on the origins of narrative, the novelist Reynolds Price says that men “crave nothing less than the perfect story . . . we are satisfied only by the one short tale we feel to be true: History is the will of a just god who knows us.” Nihilism denies the truth of that tale: it denies the existence of any “plot” in the history of man or in our individual lives, any great story in which our lives finally have their meaning revealed.

A nihilistic artist pursues the consequences of this denial; he is an artist precisely because he is not content to shrug the question off, preoccupied with “practical” concerns. Thus a century after Nietzsche many artists still explicitly deny the existence of God (implicitly denying life any ultimate meaning), or even curse God. While it is true that nihilism has become a literary convention and that many men today are themselves casual nihilists, these explicit denials and blasphemies still have great power. The artist is saying what few men would openly say, whatever their inward convictions or half-formed notions. One can feel this power in the cinema as well as in literature: no image can substitute for the words of Marlon Brando cursing God in Last Tango in Paris, or Woody Allen in Sleeper—in a tone closer to Jim Harrison’s—answering the question of just what he does believe in: “Sex and death.” Thus when the hero of Harrison’s title story, “Legends of the Fall,” twice curses God, it is as a matter of principle. It is not enough for Harrison to imply

(This entire section contains 1970 words.)

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imply it: it must be said, as one takes an oath.

Harrison’s novellas, then, share the perplexing quality of much contemporary fiction: a nihilism without evident despair. The detached, almost playful tone can in part be attritubed to his use of that supposedly discredited convention, the “intrusive” narrator, who interrupts the action, comments on it, and even offers Tolstoyan generalizations. It has been the first commandment of most fiction since Flaubert that the narrative should speak for itself, but Harrison, like many of his contemporaries, has found energy in the convention of the intrusive narrator, just as a contemporary poet might find energy in rhyme. Harrison’s use of dialogue—which grew increasingly important in modern fiction with the disappearance of the author—is accordingly spare; in the title story, there is virtually no dialogue, and even that is in indirect discourse. It should be noted that in these novellas, there is no distinction implied between narrator and author.

The authorial voice is least intrusive in “Revenge,” the first of the three novellas, which begins: “You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive.” But even in the first paragraph, while the reader is under the spell of that marvelous opening sentence, the intrusive author asserts himself in one of the sudden shifts in perspective which are characteristic of all three novellas. The vulture looked around for coyotes, he says, and then the shift: “Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.” This shift, not just in perspective but in language, to make it even more obtrusive (note the repetition and the odd syntax) might seem a trifle if not a slip, but it is an important signal from the author: he gives notice that he will feel free to interrupt, to issue obiter dicta, breaking the spell of the story.

“Revenge” is a simple, violent tale. The naked man is not quite dead; found by a Mexican peasant and treated by a Mennonite missionary doctor, he is nursed back to health. He is Cochran, an ex-fighter pilot and career Navy man who retired young. He was beaten and left to die because just three weeks earlier he had begun a love affair with Miryea, the beautiful and intelligent wife of a Mexican gangster, Tibey, who has tried to buy himself respectability. He and Cochran were friends of sorts: Cochran plays tennis; Tibey bets. After giving Cochran several indirect warnings, he and his thugs follow Cochran and Miryea to a cabin, where Cochran is beaten and Miryea is disfigured. Tibey then shoots her full of amphetamines, followed by heroin, followed by a stretch in a whorehouse. She ends up in a nunnery. By the time Cochran—recovered and living for revenge—discovers where she is and confronts Tibey, Tibey is repentant. They go together to the nunnery, where Miryea is feverish and dying; she dies in Cochran’s arms. Harrison embellishes this brutal melodrama with his authorial voice, with vivid characterizations deliberately violating the economy of the plot (Diller, the Mennonite doctor, is given Dickensian attention), and with a storyteller’s license: Cochran and Miryea first declare their love obliquely in her library, quoting Lorca to each other in Spanish.

“The Man Who Gave Up His Name” is Nordstrom, an oil company executive who wants to change his life. Like the heroes of the other two novellas, Nordstrom is a man of action, gifted, intelligent, and enjoying a natural superiority. Like the others, he values courage and expertise; he trusts his instincts. He is not, however, quite so improbable a character as Cochran or the legendary Tristan of the title piece. “Nordstrom had taken to dancing alone,” his story begins. It is another arresting opening: a forty-three-year-old man dancing alone to the music of Janis Joplin, Stravinsky, the Beach Boys, and the Grateful Dead. What follows is a flashback, one of the finest passages in the book, to his college days in Wisconsin, when he entered a modern dance class by mistake and grimly stuck it out. Flunking the class, he won an “A” when, on the final exam dance, he was asked to “respond” to the previous performance: beautiful Laura dancing to Debussy. Nordstrom “went berserk with berserk music” of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin; eventually he married Laura.

Flashbacks continue, showing Nordstrom in middle age, divorced, quitting his job, beginning to keep a diary; the diary excerpts inserted here and there help to make him a more fully realized character. The intrusive narrator announces: “Now we have arrived where we began and are in continuous time, a wonderful illusion for those addicted to notions of yesterday, right now and tomorrow.” This is typical of Harrison’s subversion of the typical novella form, with its concentrated action and intense development. Nordstrom’s tale continues with some gratuitous macho violence—a rite of passage?—before he settles down as a cook in a small seafood restaurant in Islamorda, Florida. He buys a boat, fishes, and lives in a one-room tourist cabin. In the final scene he is dancing to the music of a jukebox in a bar.

“Legends of the Fall” is the most complex and original of the three novellas. Spanning decades, it is less a novella than a densely compressed and transmogrified family saga which defies summary. “Late in October in 1914,” the saga begins, “three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917).” That opening, which suggests large vistas, has the resonance of fateful beginnings, but the voice is “straight,” and the opening continues in that vein. At the end of the first paragraph, however, the narrator makes his first shift: the father of the three boys is out to see them off before dawn, “and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.” That delightful, faintly surreal image alerts the reader to the mode of the tale, in which everything is a little larger than life.

As a family saga, with the focus on one of the brothers, Tristan, “Legends of the Fall” is even more melodramatic than “Revenge.” It would take pages merely to list the events of the novella, ranging from scalpings and mustard gas on the battlefield in France in 1915 to a vendetta with San Francisco-based Irish gangsters during Prohibition. In fact, Harrison seems to have discovered that he could make all this action credible, in the story’s terms, by adding even more action and variety of setting, so that the pace never flags from page to page. If it is not “straight” action always aspiring to plausibility, neither is it a zany, Richard Lester-style farce of the sort all too common in contemporary fiction. Some of Harrison’s original tone can be located in brief passages which are peripheral to the action and lovingly detailed.

“Legends of the Fall” is a richly original, ambitious work which operates on many levels. Tristan’s seemingly random journeys—he runs guns for the British to Africa (to use against Germans); he smuggles dope from the Far East—allow Harrison to develop a suggestive undercurrent of history. (Tristan’s brother Alfred—his exact opposite, the organization man—becomes a Senator and invests in Standard Oil.) On another level, a kind of metaphysical subplot, Tristan curses God twice, the second time after the death of his younger brother, Samuel. After that he seems singled out for misfortune, yet the narrator intrudes near the end of the tale to comment: “No one has figured out how accidental is the marriage of the blasphemy and fate.” He adds, in a tricky tone, that the “contemporary mind views such events properly as utterly wayward, owning all the design of water in the deepest and furthest reaches of the Pacific.” This passage, followed immediately by an unmotivated reference to Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities, suggests a direction for further research: there are three Isabels and many ambiguous relationships in “Legends of the Fall” to be compared with Melville’s work.