Those who know Jim Harrison's fiction, poetry, and essays discuss the work with awe; those unfamiliar with his name light up when informed that he wrote the novella basis for the film Legends of the Fall. In his seventh novel, The Road Home, Harrison provides a spirited study of human nature, an epic bound by insight and love. Speaking in the distinct voices of four individuals, all related by blood, marriage, and deep loyalties, Harrison delivers a textured questioning of life's headlong direction, its what-might-have-been sidetracks, its motives and mysteries and, finally, its finality.
Set primarily in remote Nebraska farm and range land over the past hundred years, The Road Home chronicles the spectrum of emotions, the events of lifetimes. We observe friendships built upon moments of insight, alliances of coincidence and happenstance. Expanding on characters from his intriguing 1988 novel, Dalva (we hesitate to call The Road Home a sequel; its action both precedes and follows that in Dalva), Harrison also explores the attitudes of the region and the several eras that frame the narrative. His independent people tend close to the land, understand survival in the face of weather and isolation indeed, the family patriarch is half-Lakota and yet are drawn to the world at large by world war, legal dealings, and quests of the heart. In vignettes tough and poignant, humorous and mystic, impulsive then melancholy, the tale becomes mythology for the millennium, solid food for modern thought, as encouragement to claim soulful value from our days in this world.
This is not to imply that The Road Home is difficult reading. This mansion is built of small bricks. Yet Harrison's sense of language, of idiom, makes the printed page three-, and often four-, dimensional. His sentences are blends of fact and philosophy; many paragraphs voyage across a lifetime. The simplicity of the tale offers majesty. These people worry about war profiteering and, in the same breath, discuss bird sightings. As the narrators provide plaintive momentum, their surroundings set an almost-bare stage for perceptions and memories. The reader is gathered along by their acceptance of both wealth and poverty, their inclination to roll with life's ups and downs, struggles with common sense, and with what cannot be changed.
In the end we see how men and women build personal value systems, cope with heartache and joy, survive bewildering day-to-day fortune, interact both with humans and their natural surroundings. At one point in The Road Home, Harrison wonders if humans are, in pure geologic terms, as inconsequential as rocks on the beach. On that level, this novel is plain beauty; in real time our lives at this moment The Road Home is a rush of sensitivity and depth.
Over 35 years Jim Harrison has created six other novels, a half-dozen volumes of poetry, three novella trilogies, and an anthology of essays. This novel will satisfy Harrison's deserved audience; it will, without question, expand his audience.
Tom Corcoran lives in Florida. His debut mystery, The Mango Opera was published this year by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books.