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Updated Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 07:31 AM

‘The River Swimmer’: youth and age, in the currents

By Tim McNulty
Special to The Seattle Times

“The River Swimmer”

by Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 240 pp., $25

In his recent fiction “The English Major,” “The Farmer’s Daughter” and “The Great Leader,” novelist Jim Harrison has probed the worlds and woes of over-the-hill white guys. Their antics are humorous, pitiful and at times wincingly recognizable. Once they suffer through their epic mishaps, they emerge resoundingly human.

In “The River Swimmer,” Harrison, himself in his mid-70s, gives us a pair of novellas that explore the psychologies of youth and age. Thad, the river swimmer of the title story, is a 17-year-old farm boy whose passion for plunging into deep currents sweeps him through a coming-of-age epic that would drown an ordinary life. “Such was his love of water he was always wet, even in winter,” writes Harrison. “To be frank he could not stop himself and that was his downfall.”

Handsome and athletic, Thad is soon out of his depth with two girlfriends and their overbearing, privileged fathers, one of whom was quite violent. Only when testing his limbs against strong currents, or discovering the mythical “water babies” that inhabit his home waters, does Thad feel fully himself. Indian legend has it that water babies are the spirits of infants who had died. This magical element helps tether the novella to the netherworld of teenage imagination.

College and a swimming scholarship beckon, but a physical attack by one irate father and foreign travel funded by a more accommodating dad open Thad to other possibilities. One of them is swimming the world’s great waterways.

Rivers, romance, travel, danger: Thad swims through them all in a quick-paced prose that loops and eddies with teenage emotion. At times Thad rides the surface waves like a dolphin; at others he is swept under and pounded along the river-bottom rocks. Thad’s destination is never clear, but Harrison gives full attention to the exquisite details of his passage. By summer’s end, Thad gives in to his deepest swimming fantasy, and the reader can feel the author, life-ring in hand, paddling out to reach him.

In “The Land of Unlikeness,” Harrison covers more solid and familiar ground. Clive, a recently divorced art-history professor and failed artist, begrudgingly returns to his childhood farm to visit his aging mother. Clive’s spark is rekindled in the person of his high-school crush and an equally surprising rediscovery of his art. Though Harrison seems easier on his geezers than his teens, both novellas sparkle with lively and fluid storytelling.

Tim McNulty is co-editor of “Notes from Disappearing Lake, The River Journals of Robert Sund” (Pleasure Boat Studio).


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