Short Stuff Makes It More Difficult

The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison



The novella as a literary form has been around for a long while; it remains as popular in Great Britain and Europe as it has been in the first half of the U.S.’s twentieth century. For readers, the popularity stems from its abbreviated length, its compact style that some writers and editors compare with the longer short stories. The difficulty for writers is two-fold, I think: you’re tempted to let the piece be static in structure, or you find yourself leaving great gaps in characterization or story line, gaps that would be filled in if the piece were of, say, sixty thousand words or more, i.e., of novel length.So one must write a tightly controlled story, not littered with too-many subplots and long, drawn out characterizations.

And for the publisher in this day, the book of dual novellas seems the only feasible mode of publication, as many publishers resist putting money into a short book that they can only sell for minimal price.

Thus we have two novellas from Harrison here, The first and least satisfying being The Land of Unlikeness. In it, an aging and still-struggling artist named Clive returns home to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and finds renewed fascination in reliving his younger years there, including high school romances. Harrison seems to want us to understand that creative fame is more or less accidental, but that one can still find fulfillment there once ego and pursuit of fame are abandoned. The writing here is uneven, dropping in erudite commentaries on painting and artistic styling, while giving us a story that could have been accomplished at short story length.


In The River Swimmer, however, Harrison’s talent begins to shine through. He dabbles with Magical Realism as he coaxes the central character, Thad, through a nasty conflict with a girl’s father, then various self-actualizing exercises that he would just as well not put himself though. Through all this, the young man finds his only contentment in swimming the midwest’s rivers or, as Harrison writes in the final page, “ If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it. It was his nature.”

Harrison’s style and voice in these two novellas is offhand, leaving the reader to wonder whether Harrison would just as soon not have written the pieces, or whether he’s doing extra duty in erasing himself  from his readers’ minds.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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