As a rough rule, it seems that writers fall into two camps. There are those who delight in rousting the truth from its concealment amid pieties and convention. If they must strip-mine the world to expose its hypocrisy, they will do so, even if they leave a landscape barren of hope. Then there are those writers who prefer to remythologize life on earth, finding it rich with strange congruences and possibilities. Jim Harrison is a writer of the second type, and Returning to Earth is his extraordinary valediction to mourning. It sharpens one’s appetite for life even at its darkest.
That’s eloquent criticism and Harrison deserves the praise.
In my estimation, readers love Harrison’s novels for two central reasonsâ€”his evocative sense of place and his creation of full-blooded characters. Naturally, Returning to Earth shares these traits with Harrison’s other works. The man made a lifelong fan of me with his depictions of my native Nebraska in Dalva and The Road Home. In Returning to Earth, it’s his own pine-scented northern Michigan that he so superbly reveals. Having once camped in a dark and desolate Forest Service campground along Lake Superior, I’m lucky to know this land slightly as a visitor. Harrison’s prose certainly makes the desire to return to the area for more instructive visits palpable.
A couple other notes on this book…It takes the Faulknerian form in both its reliance on stream-of-consciousness and in its consecutive use of first-person naration by four different characters (although I have yet to read it, I’m told The Sound and the Fury uses this same structure). Harrison is also unabahsed about weaving parts of himself into any and all of his characters. In this book, he is very much the David character, right down to his obsession with Mexico and preference for Subaru wagons. Critics say that mature novelists tend to leave their autobiographical writing behind after book one. Not so with Harrison, and I’m glad for this. It seems to me that we’re seeking mental and spiritual intimacy when we read important books. Harrison generously provides this to his readers yet again by looking at himself, this continent’s native people and their various traditions and modern culture’s finer distractions like drink, food and sex.
Lastly, Harrison mentions Rites of Conquest by Charles Cleland several times throughout his 280-page story. This historical inquiry clearly informs Returning to Earth; thus, it piques my interest.