In 1990, the novelist, screenwriter, and poet Jim Harrison wrote a novella about an unforgettable character named Brown Dog.
A Native American from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, B.D. is a Bible school dropout who never bothered to get a Social Security card, works only when he has to, and lives in deer-hunting cabins in the sparsely populated, densely wooded swath of land between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
His favorite pastimes include walking in the woods, hunting, fishing, cooking his catch over an open fire, drinking too much, chasing women, and making fun of the rich, white people who summer amid his beloved streams and forests.
Brown Dog may sound like an uncouth, uneducated drunk — and to some extent he is — but one of the messages that Harrison telegraphs to readers is not to be fooled by appearances. Brown Dog is, as his best buddy and sometime sex partner Gretchen, says, “absurdly endearing,” a backwoods mensch with the wisdom and compassion of a bodhisattva.
After the first novella was published, Harrison brought B.D. back for four more installments. Now Grove Press has collected all the novellas in one volume and added a new one for good measure.
In each story, something deeply strange happens to B.D. — he salvages the preserved body of an Indian chief from the bottom of Lake Superior, steals back a sacred bearskin from a Hollywood mogul, smuggles his mentally disabled stepdaughter into Canada to keep her out of a state school in the United States.
The stories inevitably start off in shaggy dog fashion — B.D. never met a digression he didn’t like. In the end, though, what seemed to be a tangent turns out to be inevitable, and the stories miraculously hold together.
Harrison has an extraordinary ability to evoke the splendor and terror of the natural world, but is also remarkably clear-eyed about families, relationships, politics, even food. (He’s been frequently profiled by food writers, including Anthony Bourdain.)
In the next-to-the-last novella, B.D. has returned to the U.P. after going on the lam and gone to visit his uncle. Spring has arrived in a part of the world that can get 300 or more inches of snow, and tiny frogs are trilling in a nearby swamp. “B.D. had a lump in his throat about life itself,” Harrison writes, capturing the quality of this most civilized of savages who keeps readers coming back for more.