Too Much Faux, Too Little Mystery

The Big Seven: A Faux Mystery by Jim Harrison. Grove Press. 341 pp. $26.00.

Jim Harrison is my favorite novelist, probably of all time; I’ve read many of his books multiple times and would happily read most of them again. He has a unique style, marvelous powers of observation; he tells a great story and is the least politically correct writer I know of. Even the rough edges to his style have a certain charm (I’m told he will allow no changes to his work, even when—as he sometimes is—he’s grammatically incorrect), and at its best his prose sings. Though some of his books involve elaborate plots, they are all, somehow, a celebration of everyday life. He’s the one writer whose work I always buy as soon as it comes out, poetry or prose, narrative or essay, and to a new reader I’d say, start with Dalva, move on to The Road Home, and continue from there as you want. You can’t go wrong.

But something has happened in his most recent work. The obsession with food and alcohol has taken over to the point where I wonder if he’s indulging while he writes. The obsession with sex has entered the realm of fantasy; our late-sixties narrator in this novel is sleeping with a 19 year old woman. The rough-hewn narratives have become no real story at all. The occasional clunkers have become the only sentences he writes. His self-indulgence has become a parody of itself.

I don’t believe I’m saying this, but I didn’t finish this book. I couldn’t. I love the man’s work too much. It was too painful.

As exhibit A I’m going to quote a long single paragraph from the first third of the book, right around the place where I gave up. I suppose I should issue a spoiler alert, but the plot details are so incidental that they hardly matter, and I don’t think you should read the book anyway.

‘He fished farther downstream than ever before, well into the Ames property. The water wasn’t as fine as his own, being too straight and monochromatic to be good trout habitat, though he caught a couple of good browns in deep pools. The ancient ancestor of the owner he’d bought from had picked the best water but then he was first by five decades. Sunderson was just getting out of the water to walk back home when something unbelievable caught his eye. Lodged in a small jam faceup was the body of one of Bert’s twins, a big vigorous boy in his teens, so freshly drowned that he looked like he could still be alive. Sunderson did a quick furtive examination rolling the boy over because his eyes were open. As a longtime detective Sunderson knew it was his responsibility to report the death but he wasn’t up to it. Suddenly he was cold and walked the two miles home shivering ignoring a playful rifle shot that hit near his feet. When he got home Monica was there with a batch of good chili. He was paying extra for meals but loved the lack of bother. When tired from fishing you didn’t want to spend an hour at the stove. He didn’t want to but told Monica about the body of her younger brother. She winced but didn’t seem to care. “Half brother. He was a horrible person. Dad made him that way,” she said, “and that crazy woman he took up with after Mom. I’ll tell the others.” Sunderson gave her exact directions and let her use his phone. He was relieved to have it in another’s hands but nonetheless feeling a little shabby as an ex-police officer. He hadn’t seen any marks on the body but if it was poison again there wouldn’t be external marks. He jumped the gun on dinner and had a small bowl of chili, then made love to Monica who was already on the bed. It seemed as ordinary as going to the grocery store though she held him more strongly than usual. The question was how do you make love to a girl after you announce you have found her brother dead in a river? But after she slipped off her jeans and sweater would it have been more hurtful to refuse. He walked a couple of miles with her on the way home. A rifle bullet hit a tree they passed. She said, “That’s Teddy. He doesn’t understand his brother is dead. They were nearly inseparable.’

That’s a sample paragraph, probably one of the worst, though far from the only bad one. To start off: that’s all one paragraph? You catch two trout, discover a corpse, examine it, get shot at (somehow he knew the shot was “playful,” though it “hit near his feet”), tell your girlfriend her brother has died, eat dinner, make love, walk a couple of miles, get shot at again, all in one paragraph? You don’t elaborate on any of it?

Sunderson doesn’t report the corpse? Somebody shoots at him and he pays no attention? Monica shrugs off the fact that her half-brother is dead? After “telling the others” (who?) and watching her boyfriend eat his dinner, she lies down on the bed, slips off her jeans and sweater (when?) to make love? Sunderson and Monica don’t seem to say anything—there’s not a lot of communication going on here—but walk several miles and don’t even shrug when a bullet hits a nearby tree? Teddy “doesn’t understand his brother is dead”? What does that mean? Does it follow that he would shoot at them? Or is he still being playful?

This is lazy writing; it is writing that is going through the motions; it is writing that goes over the same old things but has no interest in them. It’s the writing of a man who is afraid to stop writing, who has nothing better to do. It is definitely the work of a man who has no business writing a mystery. I don’t think he’s actually read many (in an essay, he admits to having little patience for “light lit”). In a mystery novel, when somebody shoots at you, you do something about it.

I still believe Jim Harrison—who is edging up on eighty years old—could write a good novel. I believe he could write a great novel. But he needs to stop writing because he’s got nothing better to do. He needs to stop writing period, take a deep breath, and see what he wants to do with the time he has left. I can’t believe it’s another faux mystery.

I’m the man’s greatest fan. I found this book heartbreaking.