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for people who care about the West

What lies beneath?


The Farmer's Daughter
Jim Harrison
308 pages, hardcover: $24.
Grove Press, 2010.

It's a favorite trope in Western literature and film: The soft-boiled city slicker who's "hardened up" by the rural West, taught the value of a good day's labor and stripped of frivolous notions of comfort and security. The land tempers you, according to popular mythology, instilling both a respect for the elements and that rare brand of iron will that's required to overcome them. This sort of hardscrabble fable has defined the Western experience for generations. And it's a load of crap.

In the title story of Jim Harrison's latest novella collection, The Farmer's Daughter, an intellectually gifted young girl moves from Ohio to Montana's Bitterroot Valley, with her Vietnam vet dad and overbearing evangelical mom. Growing up on the woodsy fringes of ranch country makes Sarah independent, observant and inquisitive. But it takes her brutal rape at the hands of a drug-addled cowboy to make her strong, and the rest of Harrison's story is a complex coming-of-age tale, one that finds a young woman learning to love even as she plots a man's murder. Buried inside the novella is Harrison's rebuttal to the "toughen up" mythology of the American West. Landscapes don't make people hard, he seems to say: Life does -- life and the loneliness that comes from revisiting one's lowest moments.

Loneliness and brutality are the themes that tie these stories together, surprising in a collection whose main characters are likeable and sympathetic. "Brown Dog Redux" checks in on a character from several of Harrison's previous collections, the born loner and perennial womanizer Brown Dog. We catch up with the half-Chippewa B.D. as he tries to leave Toronto, the city he wound up in at the end of Harrison's 2005 story "The Summer He Didn't Die." Complicating his travel plans are a lack of immigration papers, a non-stop libido, and the U.S. authorities who want to institutionalize his fetal-alcohol afflicted stepdaughter. The real drama is internal, though, and Harrison is at his terse, melancholy best when the misanthropic B.D. stops to reflect on his mistakes, anxieties and one unrequited love. The rest of the novella is mostly about sex -- "Redux" is a sweaty one-night-stand of a tale that climaxes when its protagonist does.

The best and boldest of the three stories is "The Games of Night." Evidently hip to the fact that werewolves are the new vampires, Harrison writes from the perspective of an awkward adolescent prone to monthly bouts of carnality and lust after he's afflicted with a rare canine blood disorder. Though seemingly ripped from this season's HBO line-up, the premise isn't all that out of character -- Harrison did, after all, write the screenplay for the 1994 Jack Nicholson vehicle Wolf, an unclassifiable flick about werewolves climbing the corporate ladder. The result here is a strangely breathtaking ode to mankind's animal nature, a meditation on whether we're ever anything more than the sum of our vulgar impulses. As Sam the pseudo-werewolf asks on the occasion of his first full-moon freak-out, "I've often wondered if we metamorphose or only stand more revealed?"

The myth of the tempering West is based on the assumption that we become something different and purer when our culture's dandifying influence is removed. But each of Harrison's three new novellas indirectly questions the truth of that theory, asking just what it is we become. Sarah is "a puppet of her parents' daffy ideas that though you had to live within the culture you could minimize the bad effects by staying as remote as possible." Sam, meanwhile, finds himself wondering "who we truly are beneath the layers of paint the culture has applied to us." The Farmer's Daughter never delivers a single, neat hypothesis about what actually does lie beneath, but it does portray the natural landscape as a balm to its characters' callousness, rather than the cause of it. Sarah dispels her demons at an isolated mountain cabin. Brown Dog finds reprieve fishing the northwoods of Upper Michigan, and Sam comes to terms with his inner wolf in Montana's Centennial Valley. "Location is everything when we are young animals," the changeling reminds us between frenzies, "and our survival depends on our attentiveness to where we are."