Jim Harrison | The River Swimmer

Books & Writers

Part-time Montanan Jim Harrison veers from coming of age to aging in two fluid, oddly tranquil novellas.

In The Land of Unlikeness, Clive, a cynical art history professor who gave up painting decades ago, finds a reprieve from his relentless intellectualism at the family farm in Michigan, where he’s taking care of his cranky, aging mother for a month. The fecund landscape and the proximity of his first love stir his painterly passions. Soon, he orders a big box of Crayolas and some oils, and paints his childhood room like the inside of a whale skeleton.

“Clive woke at dawn having lost his self-importance. He didn’t know where it had gone but it wasn’t in him anymore … He didn’t want to be a painter, he only wanted to paint, two utterly different impulses.”

Passion also pervades the second novella, The River Swimmer, as young Thad finds adventure and solace in swimming rivers. He grew up on an island in the middle of a large river, and taught himself to swim at age 3. He returns to the river again and again to escape the strange currents of his own life – Friendly Frank, who cracks Thad’s cheekbone with a barrel stave; young women, who want to claim him for themselves (“if you are not jealous of your freedom who will be for you?” he wonders); and the constant questions from adults about his future.

In consummate Harrison fashion, he strings this story like a yarn drawing that emerges from meandering strand into a textured, complex whole.

Newsweek describes Harrison, who has written more than 30 books of peotry, non-fiction and fiction, as “our greatest nonwriterly writer,” and Publishers Weekly praises the new novellas as “each striking in their own ways, rich and satisfying.”

– Kristi Niemeyer