The River Swimmer

The River Swimmer

by Jim Harrison


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“Among the most indelible American novelists of the last hundred years. . . . [Harrison] remains at the height of his powers.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Trenchant and visionary.”—Ron Carlson, The New York Times Book Review

A New York Times best-seller, enthusiastically received by critics and embraced by readers, The River Swimmer is Jim Harrison at his most memorable: two men, one young and one older, confronting inconvenient loves and the encroachment of urbanity on nature, written with freshness, abundant wit, and profound humanity. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” Clive—a failed artist, divorced and grappling with the vagaries of his declining years—reluctantly returns to his family’s Michigan farmhouse to visit his aging mother. The return to familiar territory triggers a jolt of renewal—of ardor for his high school sweetheart, of his relationship with his estranged daughter, and of his own lost love of painting. In “The River Swimmer,” Harrison ventures into the magical as an Upper Peninsula farm boy is irresistibly drawn to swimming as an escape, and sees otherworldly creatures in the water. Faced with the injustice and pressure of coming of age, he takes to the river and follows its siren song all the way across Lake Michigan.

The River Swimmer is an exceptional reminder of why Jim Harrison is one of the most cherished and important writers at work today.

“Two years have gone by since I first suggested to President Obama that he create a new Cabinet post, and appoint distinguished fiction writer Jim Harrison as secretary for quality of life. The president still has not responded to my suggestion. . . . [The River Swimmer] deepens and broadens [Harrison’s] already openhearted and smart-minded sense of the way we live now, and what we might do to improve it.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122209
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/11/2014
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 364,138
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jim Harrison is the author of thirty-six books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. He divides his time between Montana and Arizona.

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Clive awoke before dawn in a motel in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking that it was altogether possible that every woman in the world was married to the wrong man. He was sixty and hadn't been married in twenty years but his divorce was still the starkest rupture in his life. Afterward his fire was doused, or so he thought, and he had quit being a painter and had become an art history professor, an emissary, appraiser, and cultural handyman. In actuality he had allowed time to slur reality and the break was far from clean. The year before the divorce his final show at a New York gallery had been declared by a Times critic to be "absurdly decorative," the kiss of death for an abstract painter and also a kiss good-bye with a gallery that had only sold two of the thirty paintings and those heavily discounted to one of Clive's few collectors.

Ypsilanti wasn't a destination, to be sure, but a stop on his way to northern Michigan to look after his semiblind eighty-five-year-old mother while his sister made her first trip to Europe. His sister had chided him on the phone that he had admitted to more than thirty trips to Europe while she hadn't been once. This wouldn't have been possible but he had been put on a three-month leave of absence by his Ivy League university for an unfortunate incident that had involved minimal but disastrous self-defense. During the annual public lecture that was part of his obligation for his endowed chair in the humanities a dozen members of a group called the Art Tarts had rushed up on the stage and their leader, a thin young woman of Amazonian height, had thrown a canister of yellow paint on his favorite suit (Savile Row) and then began rapping on his chest with a sharp knuckle while screaming "Sexist cocksucker!" He pushed her away and she tumbled backward off the podium, gave her head a nasty crack, and broke her collarbone. Fortunately for Clive the lecture had been videotaped, though the dean dissuaded him from pursuing an assault charge. She pursued one, but her contingency lawyer had seen the videotape and told her that he couldn't win her a dime.

Above all else, including a list of neurotic disorders, marital and academic difficulties, Clive was a man of surpassing good humor and amazing memory. He remembered everyone's name across the board from society people to grocery clerks to janitors and cleaning women. As a child he had been fascinated by names and had kept a name journal throughout his life. In his side work appraising art — nineteenth-century American art was his specialty — for estate, insurance, or divorce purposes, he knew the names of a dozen doormen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Always a liberal he insisted on being called by his first name so he was greeted by them as "Mister Clive."

After a twelve-hour drive and a bitterly stupid late meal in Ypsilanti he was susceptible to his only two current anger items. First was his ruined favorite suit which literally made him see yellow. It was irreplaceable mostly because he had lost nearly 70 percent of the value of his modest portfolio in the economic plunge. This was due to receiving stock tips from a hedge fund stalwart who himself had lost a couple of billion. The man had been apoplectic for a year because he had bought many paintings at exorbitant prices and now had to pay his long-term wife half their value in their divorce settlement.

The night of modest indigestion led him to question why an ordinary mom-and-pop restaurant would put a big amount of rosemary, currently America's most overused herb, in their meat loaf. This led to his prime source of anger which he tended to keep private except with a few friends. It was greed. Unmitigated cupidity. Despite having quit painting twenty years before, Clive was a romantic idealist about art. He had noted beginning in the past two and a half decades the growing percentage of people who when they talked about art were only talking about the art market and its confetti of price tags. Some days it was up to 100 percent. He had long ago given up making pointed remarks about the fact that art and the art market were two entirely different things. Clive was not widely read in the field of socioeconomics or the problem would have been clearer. Such academic prose was utterly without aesthetic merit and this quality was demanded in something as simple as this money obsession. It was a brutish crime indeed and far from the ideals of a boy of ten, who had been dropped off at the Big Rapids Public Library to study art books with goose bumps while his parents shopped at the grocery and hardware store and picked up feed at the grain elevator. The final blasphemous straw, though it wasn't a painting, was a bid of twenty-eight million dollars for a single chair at the Yves Saint Laurent belongings auction in Paris. Curiously, his many French and Italian friends and acquaintances rarely spoke of money. They didn't necessarily have better taste but open discussions about money were apparently in bad form.

It was only 5 a.m. and he didn't want to wait two hours for Zingerman's to open in the neighboring city of Ann Arbor in order to buy intriguing food supplies. He would call in and do a FedEx order, which would irritate his penurious mother. He had wanted to dine at Zingerman's Roadhouse the evening before but was absolutely sure he would run into someone he knew. He had begun his teaching career at the University of Michigan and even though that was more than fifteen years before, the idea of explaining his recent mudbath to an old colleague was unacceptable. The Internet and pestilential e-mail ensured that the gossip would have made its way around. The New York Times had run a very small item but the Post had run a photo of him staring down cross-eyed at the paint on his suit.

All of these annoyances passed with the pressure of leaving early enough to miss the rush hour and the more than overwhelming glories of burgeoning spring. Since childhood he had favored May above all other months and driving north a couple of hundred miles to what was left of the old farm was curiously enlivening in its variations of diminishing spring, much stronger in the south, but still there farther north with budding hardwoods and a distinct emerging green in pastures with loitering black and white Holsteins, all of which began to purge his mind of the enervations of his livelihood. When he turned east on a gravel road between Big Rapids and Reed City he stopped beside a marsh with the car windows rolled down and listened to the trilling cacophony of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds, and on the other side of the road the more dulcet calls of meadowlarks. He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.


For reasons of clarity Clive liked to dice his life into paragraphs in his journal, kept since his teens. All of this writing, not to speak of his obsessive reading of the best in literature, had the benefit of teaching him to write well. One of the rawest paragraphs, however, came about after the collapse of his painting life when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. A professor had loved an essay Clive had written about Blumenschein, a painter of the Taos school, and had said, "It's a good thing you quit! You write too well for a painter. Painters don't write well."

"What about Robert Motherwell?" Clive had asked, always irked at such didactic statements.

"Motherwell is passé," the professor said, fiddling with his meerschaum, then beginning one of his geometric doodles. Many of his graduate students referred to him as "Mister Doodles."

Clive had merely nodded and left the office with a smile. After all, he had received high and prophetic praise for his Blumenschein essay. Despite an eighty-year slump, Blumenschein prices eventually rose to as much as a million, obviously a matter of no consequence to the long dead artist. On his way to have a cup of coffee after the enervating meeting with the professor, Clive had stopped to make a few notes in his pocket notebook, which would later be transferred to his journal in the form of a terse paragraph.

I've been told that Motherwell is passÃ(c). Just the other day at the coffee shop I told a PhD candidate in music how much I enjoyed reading Steinbeck. He snorted and chortled as if he had caught me masturbating while picking my nose. "No one takes Steinbeck seriously," he hissed. This young man is writing his dissertation on a composer named Harold Arlen with whom I'm not familiar. In big cities and in university centers in the hinterlands the air guitarists are forever making decisions on who has become passé. They remind me of certain patrons of my favorite NYC jazz clubs like the Five Spot or Slugs, ultrahip guys who appear to believe that the music of the performers depends on their presence.

He missed the turn to his mother's driveway, perhaps on purpose. He wasn't ready yet and never would be, he thought. "What is this?" he said aloud in the car. It had been three years since he had been back home and seen the twenty-acre thicket his mother had planted forty years before after his father's death. In the three years of overaverage rainfall the thicket had grown exponentially, with a riot of small pale green leaves flipping the undersides in the stiff late morning wind. The thicket was her retreat from the peopled world, which she found unsavory in nearly all respects. In the interim his mother had visited him with his sister Margaret twice in New York City which had meant a couple of days of dreary plodding after her in the Museum of Natural History. They would stay with him in his modest apartment on West End Avenue which he could no longer afford, the rent having risen 500 percent in seventeen years. To his complaints the rental agent had thrown up his hands and said "Tough titty." His mother's failing vision had limited her somewhat to pressing her nose against the glass cases of seemingly thousands of dead, stuffed birds and saying, "My goodness." Margaret had warned him on the phone that after leading her out at dawn to one of her bird-watching sites he would have to keep alert for when she blew the dog whistle so that he could fetch her when the time came. This had come from a phone call only days before and in his current despondency he rather liked the idea of being beckoned by a dog whistle.

He drove another mile past his mother's house down the gravel road, refusing the weight of sentiment in his boyhood landscape. He was distracted again by the thought of the whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the huge hall of the Field Museum in Chicago. It was normally a personal taboo to think of painting anything but he couldn't help himself when it came to the whale. He would lead his mother to a bench, perhaps in a room full of unattractive stuffed snakes, tell her to stay there, and then go out for a cigarette. On coming back in he would stop and stare upward at the whale pondering a holographic painting of the immense ribs from a point of view inside the capacious rib cage. He had mildly fantasized finding a room somewhere and doing the painting despite his twenty-year avowal never to paint again.

He turned around in the driveway of his high school girlfriend Laurette. The present owner had done, to his eye, a wretched job of gentrifying the farmhouse with flouncy dormers and copper flashing on the roof edges. The natural redwood siding looked out of place so far from California and the lawn now was absurdly manicured with geometrical perennial beds. Gone were the lilac groves and the ancient tire swing where Laurette would sing the Disney song "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" while swinging ever higher. To be frank he had never been acknowledged as Laurette's boyfriend and she thoroughly ignored him during school hours but they had grown up as lonely farm kid neighbors and were close outside of the small high school where Laurette was part of the in group. His singular period of acceptance came every fall at football where the usual fascist coach had made him into a middle linebacker and though the school had a limited talent pool there were a dozen big strong farm boys, usually enough to trash the urban schools. After football season he went back to being just plain Frenchy because in the thrall of art in the ninth grade he had cut the small bill off a cap and made it into a beret. Nicknames arrived like that. His friend Luke Carlson who was six foot four and 230 pounds at age fourteen was called Big Dork because he had a large penis. This was embarrassing to Luke because he and his family were devout Lutherans and any vaguely sexual reference in school would make Luke and his very large sisters blush in unison.

After turning around Clive found himself driving toward his mother's at less than twenty miles per hour and laughed. He had always treated her with affection and nonchalance despite her needling, but a mother can be a fearsome creature. Clive admitted to himself that his mother had disliked Laurette for the suffering she had caused her son. Laurette had spent her teens as a relentlessly petulant young woman. His sister Margaret who was five years younger than Clive always referred to Laurette as "the bitch." Laurette had actually laughed with her friends when he was fourteen and selling his petite landscapes at a table at a county fair for five bucks, having made lovely frames out of beech with his dad's miter box. A well-heeled matron had bought three of his landscapes, then popped out the paintings on the table and walked off saying, "I only wanted the frames." Clive had been enraged and sailed the paintings off toward the pig barn. Laurette and her friends laughed and Clive stormed off to the parking lot and the Model A Ford he had bought for fifty bucks. On his way he picked up an in crowd lout and put the struggling young man on a merry-go-round pony to the laughter of the crowd. Farm boys don't try to be strong but their labor makes them that way. That evening Laurette had dropped off his three landscapes saying that she had wiped the pig poop off one. Clive was still angry but grateful. She chided him about bullying her friend. Clive didn't want to be strong, he wanted to be a slender aesthete.


Lunch was thankfully short. At Mother's house you ate what was served and in the proportions she had decided were appropriate. In this case it was a cup of cottage cheese, homemade applesauce from a tree out back, and half a sandwich from a delicious ham a neighbor had smoked from their own little smoke shack the neighbor had bought and helped disassemble in the late sixties after Clive's father's death. As a lagniappe Clive was offered a tiny lemon bar. When Mother left for her nap he went outside and sat on the deck with Margaret.

"Lunch was slim. She ate nine lemon bars last evening after dinner and today she wants to diet again."

"My God, nine?" Clive said without interest. His mother has been on a diet for decades.

"She said she was going to die anyway so nine lemon bars didn't matter but this morning she only wanted a poached egg and RyKrisp. I hope you can poach eggs soft but not too soft." Margaret laughed at her brother's immediate discomfort.

"I've never poached an egg," he mumbled.

"I'll give you a lesson this afternoon. Where did you get those beautiful trousers?"

"In Florence last October. Firenze they call it." Clive specialized in picking up the odd piece of clothing on his dozens of European trips. A handwoven and tailored light summer sport coat from Cordoba, a bulky corduroy sport coat from Calabria, a half dozen pairs of linen trousers in Nice and a half dozen linen shirts from the same tailor, cream colored and off white, a butcher's leather vest from western Burgundy, brogans from a shoemaker in Dublin which were resoled every seven years. At a party after a Lincoln Center function Tommy Hilfiger had said, "My God, who dresses you? Fabulous." Clive never wore neckties under the private conviction that all of the political and financial mischief in the nation was created by men who wore neckties.

"You're in for it, kiddo. I taped the instructions to the refrigerator." Margaret laughed again. "But then what's a month? As a New Yorker you'll be pissed that you have to lead her out to a bird-watching site at six a.m. after coffee. I made a map and a numbered list of the sites."


Excerpted from "The River Swimmer"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Jim Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

The Land of Unlikeness,
The River Swimmer,

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