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The Earthy Appeal Of 'The Farmer's Daughter'

Patsy Cline's "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me" is the soulful thread that runs through and connects all three novellas in Jim Harrison's robust 16th volume of fiction. His characters — the sympathetic, self-reliant 15-year-old farmer's daughter of the title novella who has been brought up in isolation in rural Montana, "a puppet of her parents' daffy ideals"; the endearing, incorrigible half-Chippewa free spirit named Brown Dog (B.D.) first introduced in Harrison's 1990 story collection, The Woman Lit by Fireflies; and a man infected with incurable avian and canine viruses who retreats from society during full moons because his behavior becomes bestial — are all people whose "loneliness was as big as the landscape."

And what a landscape it is. Harrison's fiction, which includes Legends of the Fall, True North and, most recently, The English Major, is rooted in a deep connection with nature and infused with passion for the vast wilds of America and respect for its disenfranchised. Ranging freely in Michigan's Upper Peninsula or the Montana mountains, Harrison's characters feel "lucky to live inside beauty."

A new episode in the life of B.D., a charming, guileless hound dog who lives to fish for trout and hook women, is always cause for joy. (One hopes that someday they'll be collected in a single volume.) "Brown Dog Redux" finds him homesick in Toronto — where he fled in Harrison's 2005 novella, The Summer He Didn't Die — with his bird-obsessed, mentally disabled stepdaughter, Berry, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, rather than turn her over to state authorities to be institutionalized.

After five months in relatively sober exile, B.D. and Berry return to the States the way they came — illegally. Released from guardian duties when a better home is found for Berry, B.D. hits the booze and heads straight for his beloved trout streams. He moons over "the most hopeless love of his life," the lesbian social worker who wants him to donate sperm so she can have a child. Harrison relays all this in exuberant, often hilarious detail.

Along with hunting, fishing and literature, sex is a central focus of Harrison's earthy, lusty fiction. In the strong title novella, a sensitive tale about a bright girl coming to terms with both her nascent sexuality and a nasty assault, Harrison writes incisively: "Sarah took to rating men and few could pass through the eye of her cultural needle." Rounding out the trio, "The Games of the Night," a strange, less coherent tale, paints adolescent pawing against a backdrop of "the animality of people."

In addition to a visceral need for the great outdoors, Harrison's protagonists thrive on less activity rather than more. Speaking from B.D.'s perspective, Harrison writes, "In his view far too much had been happening and he craved the nothingness of the Upper Peninsula, a feeling he shared with the ancient Chinese that the best life was an uneventful one." In our often overpacked lives, this isn't a bad lesson to take away from Harrison's fiction, always as exhilarating as a breath of fresh air.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.