The sins of the fathers
Philip Larkin, in a rather scandalous poem from the '70s, alleged that parents "fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you." So it is with David Burkett, the protagonist in Jim Harrison's dark and emotive eighth novel, True North. He inherited his father's outsized appetite for women and alcohol, his mother's melodramatic flair, and his "extra" is an almost desperate need to explain, if not redress, his family's misdeeds. David's ancestors immigrated to Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the late 19th century and became either timber barons or predatory brutes, depending on one's point of view. The consequences of their voracious logging (much of it on land they had no right to) are still much in evidence, both emotionally and physically. David's father has fallen into the classic model of the third-generation rich (in which the first generation creates wealth, the second expands it, and the third squanders it). The elder Burkett, whom his son views as evil incarnate, comes across as a degenerate tornado, whose lack of scruples inflicts disaster on all in his path. In response, David begins his redemptive odyssey by writing his family history in an attempt to air out a skeleton-filled closet. As he gathers background for his exposÅ½, he treks through the rough-hewn areas where his forebears made their fortune. Harrison an acclaimed poet, fiction writer (Legends of the Fall) and memoirist is at his best describing the simple pleasures of camping and fishing. You can almost smell the savory smokiness of fresh-fried trout and feel the itch left by mosquitoes the size of small aircraft. He also has a keen memory for the complex and contradictory feelings young men have for young women as they pass from adolescence into maturity. Midpoint in True North, Burkett's editor and occasional lover challenges him to "Pretend you're on your deathbed . . . and tell me the truth." Harrison does just that, as his brawny prose cuts to the heart with clear-eyed insight into the prickly process of creating one's self. Thane Tierney is a record company executive in Los Angeles.