Monday, 6 October 2014

True North by Jim Harrison

published 2004









[David, a teenager in the 1960s, is discussing his family with his sister Cynthia]

[She said] “Of course we’re hopeless. What else could we be? We come from a long line of snotty criminals on both sides. Dad’s an alcoholic pervert and mother’s a goofy pill head.” I said righteously that we didn’t have to be like them and she agreed because she had no intention of being like them…

Cynthia was clearly the leader of the “bad girls”, the
free spirits in her crowd, despite the fact that she had just finished her freshman year and others were older, and some of them seniors.

When I reached our front yard [her friend] Laurie and Cynthia were there sitting on the lawn dressed for a party in the skimpiest of clothing. This was the age of the miniskirt




observations: On p167 of my copy of this book the narrator, who is sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings, and the whole history of his life, with us, writes a letter, and signs it David. I thought ‘oh, you know I couldn’t have told you for any money what his first name was.’ He did introduce himself on p1, but I don’t think people use his name much in dialogue, and I had no feeling for his name, which is odd, because the book truly is all about him.

This is the kind of book I would expect to HATE: David writes at length about his feelings, he describes many minor incidents and characters in great detail. It is never clear which of the happenings in his life are going to be important and which aren’t. He is obsessed with his own family history, and the geography of where he grew up – the Upper Peninsula of Michigan State, where his family ‘ravaged the landscape’. He is telling us about his researches into the details of the ravaging. The book is like a how-to video, where they speed through some bits, then slow down to show you the next important instruction: he will pass over some quite long period of time in a few lines, then we’re back showing one foot stepping in front of another.

In fact I loved it, I found it mesmerizing and extraordinary. I read it because I so much liked his Legends of the Fall – made into a Brad Pitt film in 1994 – and this one is even better. He has such a great writing style, and he carries you along with his ridiculous story. I was making far too many notes of wonderful sentences and perceptions: I loved David’s disgraced father who ‘saw himself as the aggrieved one… as if the family were a collective pope that had excommunicated him without good cause.’ David leaves for a summer job and ‘it dawns on you that the world bears little similarity to home.’ Awkward rich boy (with family summer homes and cabins), he looks at a local woman’s flimsy shack and asks ‘do you stay in winter?’ – her response is gracious but funny, then ‘she patted my hand as my face reddened.’

All the places in it are real – I ended up getting out a road map of Michigan and following his progress round the area. Some of the people are real too: the author of Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver/John D Voelker is a minor character. You would guess the book might be somewhat autobiographical.

I am sure people would hate it, but I still cannot recommend it highly enough, though am not finding it easy to say why….

The top picture is from the Dutch National Archives, the lower one from a Biba catalogue.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - Some books are like that. You love them and even become an evangelist for them, but it's really hard to put your finger on just exactly why. In this case, it sounds as though the novel has a great sense of place and culture, and that always appeals to me. And I do love the writing style in the snippets that you've shared. I get the sense it carries the reader along.

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    1. Thanks for that excellent description Margot. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard... anyway I do recommend this one, and I'm sure anyone who knows the Michigan area would particularly like it.

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  2. I think I read Legends of the Falls a long long time ago, either that or something else..Dalva maybe. Didn't leave too much of an impression on me. I shall have to see if I kept anything of his as I plot the collection. I may have passed it/them on.....hopefully!

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    1. Surely there'll be something by him in the Col Stacks? He has written a lot actually, I've been looking at the list and it's quite extensive, I don't know what I'll try next. Not the poetry probably...

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  3. Moira, this sounds like an unusual story written in an unusual style, both quite appealing. I enjoy reading about places, more so when the protagonist takes you on a guided tour. I always find fascinating books on your blog.

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    1. Thanks Prashant! I think the same about your blog. This is a very unusual book, and I'm sure wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but I loved it. I think he wins literary prizes in the USA, but isn't very widely known.

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  4. I have to tell you, that photo at the top of the post really puts me off (been a dedicated anti-smoker since I was a teenager and got both my parents off the weed - I was, I dare say, incredibly annoying, but I'm not sorry). The book sounds great though Moira - I've not read anything by him but seen some of the movies and not been too impressed actually (WOLF and REVENGE especially), which is hadly the same thing!

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    1. I was surprised when I looked him up to find that he had done those films - I was just reading a Jack Nicholson biog, which said that Wolf was one of his most successful films of all. And that surprised me too. The book is very much set in the 1960s and 70s, and the attitudes to smoking, sex, women and so on are very much of their time - though I should make it clear that the author is most definitely not approving of them, but describing what it was like.

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  5. Like you my expectations are that I would hate this book. Well, at least dislike it. But I will keep it in mind if I run into it. I know nothing about the author, although i have heard of Legends of the Fall. Since that is three novellas, I might rather try that.

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    1. That is a good idea, trying Legends of the Fall first. I read it out of duty, not expecting to like it, and prepared to ditch it after the first of the three stories, but loved it.

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