In The River Swimmer (Grove Press, $25), Jim Harrison once again demonstrates why he is perhaps the best American writer working in the largely ignored novella form. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” the first of the two long stories that comprise the book, we meet Clive, a failed artist and divorcé in his mid-sixties who travels back to his Michigan home to drive his bird-crazed mother around the countryside, seduce boyhood flames, and rediscover his love for painting.
The superior title story centers on Thad, a Michigan farmboy with a deep love of rivers and girls, in that order. He has a somewhat supernatural talent for navigating waterways, once swimming from the farm, which is on an island in an unnamed river, to Chicago, his clothes in tow in a fanny pack. Growing up, Thad is befriended by “water babies”—infant water spirits who live in a pond on the island. Eventually, in France, he’s injured when a powerboat hits him, and while convalescing back home, he manages to slip into the water-baby pond, from which the little sea-monkey creatures egg him onward, to the mouth of the river and, eventually, Lake Michigan.
The River Swimmer probably won’t earn Harrison a new audience—loyal readers will find the well-worn characters and settings and the themes of wild love and regret as comfortable as a wine-stained flannel shirt. But you get the sense that the author doesn’t really care, and that’s exactly why you should.