Monday, May 3, 2010

Burning trails, driving under the influence, with man and beast and man-beasts: new books from Sam Shepard and Jim Harrison

When I was a teenager I’d hop in my father’s rattling old work van, or later on the used Jetta he and my mother had helped me buy, and kill hours just driving along back roads alone, around Olds, Cochrane, and Black Diamond, or across the foothills toward Dead Man’s Flats and Canmore. It was a form of escape, the forging of a connection with a landscape, and a way to figure out how to write. My mind was able to stretch out on these short treks, and the stubborn words I sought with little fortune in my parents’ house or in the high school hallways where I’d hide while ditching class would finally emerge, often just a few a time, and I would carefully write them out with my right hand while steering with my left. Driving around aimlessly in rural areas with pen and pad by my side seemed like a magic method for coming up with ideas, and my suspicions seemed confirmed when I’d read about how Sam Shepard, whose plays kind of blew my mind at an early age, was supposed to have done the same thing.

Sam Shepard

Times have changed, I’ve gotten a little more disciplined about working at a table, and I don’t even own a car these days, but, if the many brief stories, poems and fragmentary prose collected in
Day Out of Days (Knopf, $32) are any indication, it seems Shepard, now in his 60s, still acting, still writing, has kept up the habit of driving all over the place, without destination, and writing, a sort of endless existential commute to work. (Though he portrayed US Air Force Major General Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Shepard is to this day famously uncomfortable with airplanes, and thus drives himself to all his filming locations. His insistence on roadways over airways was endearingly transferred to the protagonist of the Shepard-scripted Paris, Texas.) Several pieces in Day Out of Days could be attributed to the same narrator, someone most often found behind the wheel of a truck on a road somewhere in North America, someone who apparently is and isn’t Sam Shepard, who shares Shepard’s occupation, age and Midwestern roots, if not his exact experiences or sensibility. An aging actor becomes so disinterested in his work that he can’t even remember which movie he’s working on. A man returns to his hometown many years after fleeing and becoming famous and finds another man who never left and still resents him. A traveler stops in a motel during a blizzard and meets an emotionally distraught woman who claims to be a lover from his days in New York in the 1960s. Ghosts from this narrator’s past keep materializing, generating anxiety, and interrogating his sense of identity. The result is often funny, and sometimes spooky.

Not as spooky, perhaps, as a series of tales, dispersed throughout
Day Out of Days, involving a seasoned professional assassin hired to cut off someone’s face, an activity which forces him to reconsider his vocation. Nor as spooky as the story of the nervous man who finds a head in a basket while walking along the side of a highway. The head speaks to the man, and asks him for a favour. Savage, incomprehensible violence is a recurring theme here, with characters pondering events far off in the Middle East, or closer to home, in the drowned suburbs of New Orleans. In an especially hilarious story, a man talks about floating to safety in the wake of Katrina with Chubby Checker, his bodyguard, and his beloved piano. Fantasy, memoir, and essay blend together in this absorbing, strange, and elegant collection, an ode to restlessness, stray human connections, and what genuinely open spaces we still have left to wander upon.

Tensions between urban and rural space, between movement and stasis, between solitude and togetherness, are also a key feature in Jim Harrison’s most recent collection of novellas,
The Farmer’s Daughter (Anansi, $29.95), which also consumes a lot of highway mileage, covering much of the continent in just a few hundred pages. It’s a spry, sensitive, sometimes sex-crazed book, which frequently drifts into evocative reveries centering around its author’s love for nature and sport, an homage to basic instincts and refined tastes.

Sarah Anitra Holcomb comes of age in the titular tale, set in rural Montana. She’s a smart and highly literate girl, quietly lusted after by the amiable old farmer who becomes her best friend. A keen observer of nature, she witnesses numerous blood rituals that transpire in the wild, and eventually becomes familiar with similarly bestial encounters between men and women, which prompt an act of revenge. The sudden, somewhat incongruous swerve toward crime drama halfway through ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ nearly upsets the tender tone of the whole, yet Harrison’s eye for detail keeps things balanced, his attention to animals and humans and they way they sniff each other out, negotiate their terms of survival, violate their tacit contracts, and meet with some natural form of justice.

Jim Harrison, with friend

‘Brown Dog Redux’ marks the return of Harrison’s horny Chippewa as he tries to flee Michigan social services with his stepdaughter, who, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, is to be placed in a home of disabled youngsters. Brown Dog gets dumped by a lady in Toronto before touring the prairies with an Indian rock and roll band and gradually winding up in Michigan all over again. His journey is fun, if not the most memorable of Harrison’s latest narratives—that accolade would be reserved for ‘The Games of Night.’ This final tale concerns a lycanthrope, afflicted as a boy after being bitten by a Mexican hummingbird, now living out his adult life largely in isolation so as to sequester himself from others during his monthly moonlight rampages. But our protagonist wearies of being a lone wolf, of only reading about romantic love in the poems of Ovid. He wants a girlfriend. So Harrison renovates a familiar mythology to investigate the extremes of desire, and in doing so facilitates our suspension of disbelief by simply requiring us to recognize the network of impulses dictated by the beast within all of us.

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