Essence of time 

Jim Harrisons True North takes an effort to read

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  • True North

Though there is little question that Jim Harrison ranks among the finest living American fiction writers, his new novel, True North, provides only occasional evidence to that effect.

After a disturbingly violent, dreamlike prologue, we are locked into the first-person world of David Burkett (the fourth), as he takes us through three decades of his life, from the 1960s through the 1980s. Burkett was born into wealth, and that quickly established itself as more of a burden than a blessing. He grew up with his family, nuclear and extended, in the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan, with enough nature to fulfill anyone's communing desires.

This is the type of setting in which Harrison is very comfortable, and he paints gorgeous pictures of the land and its nonhuman inhabitants. Men bond over fishing and camping and mosquito squashing, while women sometimes provide a physical distraction. Actually, Harrison is more adept than most male authors at fleshing out his women, making them strong and human. Dalva is a fine example of a woman about whom he's previously written, the lead character in two of Harrison's best books. There are also several strong women in True North.

Harrison's intricate yet gritty style at first seems to promise us a treat, and one that we've come to expect from him.

Burkett teases us with the idea that his story will reveal, in due time, the evil entity that is his father. By the time he's laid the groundwork for the revelation, this father had better be pretty damned evil. But the father is not that evil, at least not epic-novel evil. He has done some bad things, yes, and is insensitive and mean and not what one would consider a good father. He has habits that would result in prison life for most purveyors, but mostly he is weak and no-good. Kind of a letdown.

What we really get is almost 400 pages from the point of view of a depressing and depressed navel-gazer who describes in intricate and repetitive detail a project he has assigned to himself, in which he is to reveal his family's evil, and that is just not very interesting. Burkett's search for love and sex and religion and justice becomes more of a philosophical treatise in need of an editor than an engaging fiction. His process of self-discovery quickly loses steam, and the reader is trapped in Burkett's head, which produces the type of claustrophobia usually associated with premature elevator stops. To be stuck in an elevator with such an embittered, privileged crybaby as Burkett is indeed torture.

There are some promising characters, including Burkett's sister, Cynthia, and his sometimes girlfriend Vernice, but they don't save the story. The stream-of-consciousness writing, in which Burkett remembers everything that he has ever witnessed, and in which he attributes undeserved meaning to every memory, becomes mired in its own self-importance. By the time Burkett hits his thirties, in the last part of the book that takes place in the '80s, he seems like an old man, and we are tired of him.

Vernice nicely sums up the problems with True North in a critique she makes of Burkett's attempted book:

"You're trying to be a nineteenth-century curmudgeon. You're starting twelve thousand years ago with the glaciers then moving slowly onward like a fucking crippled toad. Get over the glaciers in one page, please."

-- Michael Salkind

book info

True North by Jim Harrison (Grove Press: New York) $24/hardcover


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