“The River Swimmer” by Jim Harrison, Gentle Humor, My A** !

“The River Swimmer” by Jim Harrison  (2013) – 198 pages


Sometimes listening to the audio version of a book enhances the experience of the book for the reader.  However sometimes the opposite is true and listening to the audio version highlights an author’s defects and limitations.  Unfortunately audio brought out all the shortcomings and also brought out my own severe irritations with the two novellas in “The River Swimmer” by Jim Harrison.

The dialogue is rude, crude, and wooden.  The writing is drearily unfocused; there are frequent lengthy discursions into what the main character ate for lunch as if he is so special that we readers care.  We don’t.  But the main sin of “The River Swimmer” is the author’s undeserved arrogance.

Harrison stacks the cards totally in favor of his insufferable ‘hero’ in each of these stories and against the other male characters. The women in these novellas exist only to heap adoration and sex on the main character whom they simply can’t resist to their own detriment.

The first novella “The Land of Unlikeness” is all about 60-year-old braggart artiste Clive as he returns to his rural boyhood home in Michigan.  Usually when a story has a main character like Clive who is this obnoxious egomaniac, there is a sly humorous wink toward the reader to indicate we should be laughing at this guy.  No sly winks here.  This novella is so lame the author actually believes we readers will take this bag of wind seriously.  Clive shares all the high points of his life always putting himself in the best possible light; this gasbag just will not shut up.

In the second novella “The River Swimmer”, we have the teen Thad who likes to swim.  He has the same self-centered attitudes as blowhard Clive from the previous story, but the author must hope that by making him young he can get away with it.  No such luck.    This novella only proves that in the wrong hands, any character can be annoying.

The novellas in “The River Swimmer” are so bad that this is the first sure selection for my “Worst of the Year 2013” article.  These novellas are so bad that it is difficult for me to accept that I’ve liked previous works by Jim Harrison, such as “Legends of the Fall” and “The Woman Lit by Fireflies”.  How could I possibly have been taken in by a writer whose writing here is so transparently bad? After reading a few positive reviews of “The River Swimmer”, I have also lost faith in critics.  Gentle humor, my ass.  These novellas are so awful I probably won’t be reading Jim Harrison ever again.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, the reviews have been uniformly positive, up until now! I am currently reading and enjoying a book of poems by Harrison, but a collection of his food writing did not do much for me. He wrote food essays for Esquire Magazine for a while, collected in book form as The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. His fame as a food writer may explain the inclusion of the dining passages. Maybe he thinks people do care what some character had for lunch.

    Harrison is probably the most famous writer who lives, part-time, within a few miles of me, and I was looking forward to these novellas. Will probably read them anyway just because of the Montana connection.


    • Hi Fay,
      Please do read “The River Swimmer”, because I certainly don’t see my reviews as infallible. I’ve read quite a lot of Jim Harrison over the years and never had this problem before. Here his methods seemed so transparent and so self-aggrandizing at the expense of anyone else in the stories. I suppose it could have been the audio book reader here that caused my reaction. Still the dialogue was wooden and the woman characters are very poorly presented.
      I realize the reviews were uniformly positive which I attribute to him being the grand old man of American fiction. I suppose it was sort of shabby of me to attack this work, but I still think this work deserved it.


  2. Tony, I have enjoyed Jim Harrison in the past, but must admit I haven’t read anything by him in years. I am a little reluctant to read “macho woodsman” stories and haven’t even read Richard Ford’s new books. (Not that he’s a woodsman, but you know…)


  3. Hi Kat,
    There should be a difference between being macho and being a self-inflated egomaniac. A true macho man doesn’t have to puff himself up at others’ expense. Once I became aware of the egomania driving the writing, every sentence from then on only confirmed my opinion.
    I’m not a big fan of Richard Ford, but I do remember liking his book of short stories ‘Rock Springs’ much better than ‘Independence Day’.


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