A BROWN DOG OF MANY COLOURS
Written by Tobin Wait
Jim Harrison is nothing short of a literary juggernaut. Although you may not know his name, or see it on the top of best-seller lists, he is one of the most acclaimed and respected American writers of the last half century. Best known as the author of Legends of the Fall (adapted into a rather tepid film starring Brad Pitt), he has written over 20 novels and novellas, 5 books of poetry, 10 non-fiction works, and 3 screenplays. He is an integral member of the great American literary tradition, whose members include the likes of Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway.
Harrison writes with eerie insight into what it means to be human: our strengths, our flaws, our connection to each other and the natural world. His characters are flawed, like we are flawed; they struggle, like we struggle; they survive, like we survive. Harrison is a linguistic mastermind, infusing equal parts philosophy, wit, and stark reality to his master crafted prose.
Like many great writers, Harrison started out writing poetry, and his prose has a condensed, poetic feel to it. One of the unique things about Harrison is his fondness for a rather antiquated prose form: the novella. Longer than a short story, but slightly shorter than an average novel, the novella was a popular form in the 19th century. It's a demanding form in which to write, because everything – plot, language, character development – is condensed. Harrison has become its modern master. And many of his best-loved books (Legends of the Fall, Julip, The River Swimmer) are actually a collection of three novellas.
Harrison's only recurring novella character is also his most beloved and endearing: Brown Dog. Brown Dog appears in five of Harrison's books, and his exploits have entertained Harrison fans for decades. Now the complete collection of Brown Dog novellas, plus a brand new one, are available in one volume, aptly titled Brown Dog.
In this collection of novellas, we follow the life and times of Brown Dog, a loner of unknown origin living mostly off the grid in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Brown Dog is a loveable and classic anti-hero: despite his numerous faults, questionable antics, and stunted worldview, one cannot help but cheer for him. He comes across as the proverbial simpleton, wanting no more out of life than good fishing, easy women, and cheap booze – preferably in that order.
But deep inside this seemingly simple heathen lies the heart of a poet and the unfettered wisdom of a philosopher: a 21st century adult Huckleberry Finn.
In this collection of novellas, we follow Brown Dog from the waters of Lake Superior, where he rescues the preserved body of a dead Indian Chief, to the streets of LA, as he hunts an Indian activist who has stolen his sacred bearskin, and up North to Canada, on the run from various authorities. Along the way, he encounters an assortment of oddball characters and gets himself into an assortment of oddball situations. And along the way, readers will shake their heads, roll their eyes, and laugh…a lot.
Perhaps a proper description should be left to Harrison himself. Here he describes Brown Dog after his arrival in Los Angeles:
A forty-seven mile walk offers plenty of time to think things over but it is the walking rather than the thinking that calms the spirit. Brown Dog had none of the raw melancholy that the well educated often feel when first encountering Los Angeles. His frame of mind was a great deal more functional with the single purpose being to retrieve his bearskin and head back to the country, wherever that might be, though he had pondered Canada as a haven that might be safe from the long arm of the law, and not the lovely strip club in the Canadian Soo where the girls got down to no clothing at all, but perhaps way up on the Nipigon River. Sizeable trout were said to be plentiful there and he could always go back to the obnoxious job of cutting pulp.
Only Brown Dog would long for a Northern Canadian fishing river while wandering the warm streets of LA. But he is such a unique, loveable character – and after experiencing his travels and adventures, you begin to understand the longing. And more importantly, you begin to understand the simple lessons Brown Dog is able to teach you.