October 2000

Pondering art and aging

By Jim Harrison
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The newest offering from Jim Harrison—best known for his novel-turned-film Legends of the Fall—is titled The Beast God Forgot to Invent, which features three novellas, each centering on a man assessing past mistakes.

The first novella, which shares the book's title, features Norman, a retiree who becomes caretaker to a local man named Joe. Closed head trauma had left Joe with not only what Norman refers to as a "bruised brain" but also a new, intimate connection to the wildest elements in nature. While looking out for Joe, Norman analyzes the choices he has made and the life he has lived, realizing his mortality by way of spending time with a man who is no longer, in the sense of human community, of this earth. As has been true in much of Harrison's previous work, the landscape of the northern Michigan region looms large here, saturating the prose in much of the first, as well as the second, novella.

"Westward Ho" recounts the brief but perspective-altering California journey of Brown Dog, a Native American from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. After being abandoned outside Los Angeles by his partner fellow activist Lone Marten Brown Dog temporarily becomes a driver to a generically decadent, shallow Hollywood screenwriter named Bob. Travels with Bob eventually lead Brown Dog back to Lone Marten, who has sold B.D.'s prized bear skin to a powerful Hollywood producer-director. While B.D. plans and executes a batty scheme to get his bear skin back, he comes to greatly value his home while achingly far from it.

Lastly, a man who is convinced that his first, nine-day marriage to an 18-year-old might have been the love of his life narrates the third novella, "I Forgot to Go to Spain." At 55, this rich author of throwaway paperback biographies feels restless and decides to contact his ex, who he hasn't seen in 31 years. A meeting is arranged, and the narrator finds himself facing choices about continuing in the pattern of his established life or trying to go back to the ideals he had at the beginning, before both death and life interfered.

Harrison is at his best when dealing with the philosophical questions that surround art and aging issues that likely strike close to home for the aging writer. When the narrator of the last novella says, "I forced myself to believe that I was more than I had written," the reader briefly glimpses the compelling struggle that plagues not only the character, but the author, and such moments consistently provide the work with its moments of strongest resonance.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University, where she is pursuing an MFA in writing fiction.


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The Beast God Forgot to Invent

The Beast God Forgot to Invent

By Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly
ISBN 9780871138217

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