Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Alternative realities

Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth is the most troubling book I’ve read this year. Troubling because it began so strongly, sucking me in, then gradually spit me out, character by character, until I closed the book in bewilderment.

Set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Returning to Earth is narrated by four voices. The book opens with forty-five year old Donald, a half-Finnish, half-Chippewa man dying of ALS. Having decided to end his life on his own terms, he first dictates to wife Cynthia his family history. Donald is a strong character, literally a huge man—280 muscular pounds before illness devastates him—who talks to us about fishing, his love for his wife and family, and his deep seam of Native faith, which carries him past conventional "white" notions of illness and death:

“I won’t go into this because it’s religious. I saw this evangelist on television and it embarrassed me that this man could talk about God as if he was a buddy next door.” (41)

Donald and Cynthia have been together since their teens. They have two children, Clare and Herald, both in their early twenties, sharing an apartment in Los Angeles. Other family members include Cynthia’s brother David, David’s ex-wife Polly, Polly’s son Kenneth, who goes by “K,” and Flower, Donald’s cousin. Cynthia’s parents, the Burketts, play a large if offstage role, as does Jesse, their former caretaker, and Jesse's daughter, Vera.

Donald’s voice carried the greatest veracity. Even as his body weakens he is clear in his wishes—to be buried in the Canadian wilderness—and asks for nobody’s pity. His portion of the book closes with his impending death.

K opens the next section, and here the unrealities begin to accrete.

K is about 24, a drifter moving around Michigan. Unable and unwilling to settle into any semblance of study or career, he survives as a handyman. His work on a University of Michigan Dean’s Ann Arbor home affords him access to any University course that might interest him. He spends much time in the woods, fishing or wandering around thinking. His taste in women, while widely democratic, is one of the major failings of the novel. He says “I still think Dietrich’s left thigh in The Blue Angel is sexier than any photo I’ve ever seen in Penthouse or Playboy.” (77)

I work at a University and spend a great deal of time with men in their twenties—people born in 1985 or thereabouts. Most are fine, open-minded people who have never heard of Marlene Dietrich, let alone watched The Blue Angel. And while it’s nice to read about men who appreciate a variety of women, K is unconvincing. His tastes are those of a man in his sixties--that is, the author's. K is also in love with forty-four year old Cynthia. She tells him to buzz off, so he moves instead to Clare, who is his age. And though the two are not blood relatives, they were raised as cousins. This neatly avoids incest but remains disturbing as the novel piles on more sexual strangeness.

David is just plain annoying. Like K, he is functionally unable to do anything but read, write, and wander around a great deal. Though middle-aged, he is paralyzed by “Certain problems of late trying to force pieces of U.S. and world history into logical constructs.” (147)

“Again, how do we manage to live with what we know? ...my mind wanders back to my dithering obsession with the destructiveness of history.” 149

How do we manage? We haven’t much choice. And unlike David, most of us do not have family money. We haven’t time to dither. But David cannot wrench himself free of his childhood, especially his monstrous father, a drunk with a dangerous taste for young girls. David ties himself in knots trying to make amends, pouring the family money into survival packages for Mexicans trying to sneak over the Arizona border. Besides trouble with coyotes and US police, he loses a great deal of money for his sufferings, largely because he ignores his lawyer’s correspondence. Instead he naps three or four times daily and contemplates various women: Polly, whom he slept with long past their divorce, Vernice, a poet living in Iowa, and Vera. David and Cynthia grew up with Vera, Jesse's beauiful daughter. Unfortunately, the senior Burkett raped Vera when she was barely out of her teens. Jesse and a pregnant Vera returned to Mexico, where they built a coffee farm. Vera’s child, a boy (whose name we never learn), suffers a childhood head injury that leaves him permanently impaired; his violent behavior lands him in a criminal institution.

None of this curbs David’s abiding love for Vera, now a Mexican businesswoman in her forties. Initially it appears Vera wants nothing to do with David, which makes perfect sense, but she suddenly agrees to go to a hotel with him. Which doesn’t. Why would a beautiful woman with money and numerous suitors take up with the son of the man who raped her? A son who has no job, no sense of reality, and by his own admission is a slob and lousy cook? More older man’s fantasy. Sorry. And once again, though these two are unrelated by blood, Vera is the mother of David’s half-brother. Sex between these two is strange.

After David’s section we have Cynthia. By this point I was hoping for some kind of redemption. None came. Cynthia moves through life mechanically, reading a great deal and shuttling between her parents’ home, a small house purchased after Donald’s death, and various trips to Chicago, New York, and Au Train, where the aging Flower lives a traditional native American life.

All the characters are in constant motion. They go here, they go there. There’s a lot of hiking, a lot of stopping at cabins, small diners, bars. Cynthia is worried about her daughter Clare, who has come home from her job as a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles and fallen into a deep depression.

Though we see Clare only through other people’s eyes, her character represents another set of problems. Despite what we’re told is her interest in clothing, she is described as a tomboy who loved fishing with her father and copies his habit of wearing bib overalls. You show me a Los Angeles wardrobe stylist who wears only bib overalls and I will produce a talking frog. Compounding this is Clare’s announcement to K that she may leave her work to attend grad school in Berkeley that fall to study Human Geography. The University Administrator in me popped up immediately. It’s June, you’ve been working in the wardrobe business and you think Berkeley’s gonna take you just like that? In fall?

At this point I began doubting myself. Certainly writers are permitted liberties. (Anne Tyler's geographically altered Baltimore comes to mind.) Nor should they be intimately acquainted with Berkeley’s admissions system, as I am. But by this point in the book—not even halfway through-- the accumulation of strange plot twists and warped relationships were beyond my ability to suspend belief. I had overlooked the way Donald’s decline was written—by the time of his death, he has difficulty breathing and swallowing, but is still able to barely hobble with a walker. Sadly, I have a close relative with neuromuscular disease. A person with advanced ALS cannot walk. In fact, walking is one of the first things to go. I had overlooked David’s interest in his half-brother’s wife and Clare and K’s relationship. I found both K and David puzzling, but pushed on until Clare made this announcement, following it up by saying she wanted to get pregnant with K’s child and have him join her in Berkeley.

Do people like this exist in a reality I am too narrow to accept? People who sleep with family members when a larger population is available? People who wander and take four naps daily?

Clare does not get pregnant. Deeply depressed, she takes to her room and reads books about bears. Bears play an enormous role in the novel as native American totems and beings in the landscape. Donald loved bears; Flower does not eat them for religious reasons, and Clare, in her grief, hopes to become one. She seeks out Flower’s wisdom in this effort. The two women decide to build a sort of rough shelter on Flower’s land, where Clare hopes to “hibernate” over the Michigan winter. Given Northern Michigan’s freezing temperatures, Cynthia has good reason for concern.

To this end Cynthia hangs around Flower’s place, eating the venison mincemeat pies Flower is renowned for. Harrison loves to write about food, and there’s no shortage of male cookery here: venison, bear, a squirrel tail, and pot roasts washed down with plenty of whiskey. And though Cynthia is constantly shown eating Flower's mincemeat pies, we are told she is losing terrible amounts of weight.

Even stranger is Cynthia’s profession: she is a schoolteacher who is doing sub work after Donald’s death. Nothing is said of the tremendous strain of this job; after tossing her schoolbooks down the basement steps she says:

“It had become quite evident I didn’t want to teach in Marquette ... The smallest possible light bulb went off in my head when I remembered that in late September a young man who taught human geography at the college had suggest I might tutor some native students who tended to get lost out of shyness.” (250)

Maybe they got lost in the thicket of that sentence. But enter Vincent, a handsome, strapping young Native American with reading difficulties. Cynthia does more than just tutor him: she offers him the apartment out back and then seduces him. Nowhere is it suggested that a forty-four year old tutor working with a younger student might think twice about this behavior; instead we are led to think the young man is delighted with his good fortune.

“Before dipping into the hell of grammar study I led Vincent out to Jesse’s apartment ... I felt a little wobbly on the way up the stairs and wondered if my butt was worth looking at. In the apartment were standing next to each other and he looked around and said ‘I can’t believe my luck’ and gave me an impulsive hug. I didn’t let go and he looked at me oddly as if making sure of himself.” Afterward, studying, “We laughed quite a bit during our lessons.” (264)

Putting aside the teacher/student relationship, I wonder at Cynthia's choice of partner. We are told she was fourteen when she took up with Donald. The two married young and had children by the time Cynthia was twenty. This makes it reasonably safe to say that prior to Vincent, Cynthia had slept only with Donald. Would a grieving, sexually inexperienced woman choose a twenty-one year old dyslexic as her first sexual partner after her husband's untimely death?

Uh, no. At least, it seems a bit off to me. I mean, will Joan Didion, who said recently that she could see herself in a relationship again, take up with Ashton Kutcher's little brother?

Uh, no.

A little while later Cynthia lands in the hospital with double pneumonia and falls into a semi-coma, dreaming about moving to Lame Deer, Montana to teach (her term) “Indian Kids.” Upon waking and recovering, she does just that. David and Vera, meanwhile, have decided to adopt a child. Herald has married his girlfriend, a Mexican stripper attending community college. (Oh, please.) Clare and K wander off together.

In sum, a book with precious little basis in reality. And that was my biggest problem: the book is intended to represent reality. Returning to Earth is not The Time Traveler’s Wife, or a Lethemesque fable where the unexpected is set into reality like a ruby in a ring. We are told this is a family coming to terms with an early death; we are given a real and beautiful Michigan landscape, some excellent asides about the disasters of modern life, and wonderful insight Native American life.

But the plot is simply improbable; the easiest parts to accept are the those describing native American religious experiences, men who fly or become bears, an old woman living in a shack, making venison mincemeat and communing with animals. It’s the white characters, with their poor choices and shambling sentences, that leave me shaking my head. At one point K says:

“She had a sense of reality alien to any perceptions that I had ever had.” (90) that about sums up this book for me.


Jim Harrison: Returning to Earth
New York: Grove Press
2007 280 pp

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May 07, 2007 2:39 PM  

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