Revenge by Jim Harrison

This week I’m going to move on from the tiny “Up in Michigan” and stretch the short story as far as it can go in the other direction, to what is rightfully a novella, Revenge. Wikipedia tells me Jim Harrison’s work “has been compared to that of Faulkner and Hemingway” and since the Hemingway thought came to me all on my own I thought I’d do this next.

Doesn’t he remind you of Hemingway too, at least a bit? This is the opening:

You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes.

Okay, well, Hemingway probably never used a parenthesis in his life, but still, it’s there.

The naked man, who was alive, and who lived even after being “nothing but a dying piece of meat rotting through the day into evening,” is Cochran, a divorced American Vietnam veteran who lives in Arizona and spends most of his time playing tennis with a very nasty Mexican gangster-turned-businessman. And the reason he was half dead is that he fell in love with that businessman’s wife.

So there are two revenges in Revenge: Tibey’s revenge against Cochran for becoming his wife’s lover, and Cochran’s revenge, in turn. A few weeks ago Amateur Reader wrote about some graphically violent stories, and this was some of the most graphically violent material I’d read in a long time, perhaps ever. Fiction, at least. The beating Cochran gets is one thing, but what Tibey does to his own wife, Miryea, is far worse.

Partly for histrionics—the men in the car would spread the story of his vengeance—he screamed and ranted: “O my love whom I wanted to bear sons, you fucking faithless whore, you thankless evil bitch, you want to fuck you shall be fucked fifty times a day before you die.”

And that was that happened for Tibey was a master of revenge….

Miryea’s fate, described in the same utterly dispassionate voice as everything else, is not an easy read. And neither is Tibey’s—he doesn’t want his revenge at all, he only does it for his pride. Cochran is truly his friend, and he would have forgiven the affair if he could have done so and retained his power. And he truly loves Miryea. His own revenge drives him to drink and serious depression.

Meanwhile, it feeds Cochran and his desire to get well, get Tibey, and find Miryea. Cochran’s revenge is served so cold that it turns out very differently. Easier to read, but maybe sadder.

There’s room for a lot more here in some 100 pages: about a dozen supporting characters, several different settings, a brief life history of Cochran as well as the story of his affair with Miryea. And most important we have plenty of time for Cochran to work on his revenge, keeping things at a slow burn for months before he acts.

There is more likeness to Hemingway than just style, I should note. This is a story about men being men and being violent and being with women and without women and going hunting and drinking and being depressed and proud and in pain and being men. It’s pretty interesting to see what this comes out like post-Vietnam, and though the brutality was hard to face I really liked it. I don’t know how much of Harrison’s work has that quality; I’ve read Legends of the Fall and it’s not like that at all. (That, by the way, is highly recommended.)

7 comments to Revenge by Jim Harrison

  • I’m not very good at reading about men being excessively violent out of pride and pain. I suppose in my heart, I find it hard not to believe it’s puffed up with macho idealising fantasies. Men can be violent, no doubt, but I don’t think it ever has an edge of glamour or accomplishment, instead I think that real violence is always messy and sordid and dark, clumsy and mindless and ugly. But I say this having not read the story and it could well be represented that way. Have you ever read any Georges Bataille? There’s a man who was fascinated with every form of violence. Although my favourite story concerns the secret society he founded which was based on the members’ desire to enact a human sacrificial rite. Only when the great day came, every member begged to be the victim and no one wanted to actually do the killing – so they all had to give up and go home! :)

  • nicole

    Oh, it is ugly, very ugly. And it was a bit jarring to have the hero be just as ugly as the villain, even though he’s doing what he’s doing to save the love of his life. I don’t enjoy reading about this sort of thing, but I do think it’s better when done with coldness and brutality, rather than glamour. Then the ugliness is inescapable.

    Of Bataille I have only read The Story of the Eye, which was certainly an experience. The one you describe sounds sort of great though.

  • Yes, I agree with you absolutely about ugliness there. I realise my comment about Bataille was misleading, in that the ‘story’ is a biographical one, rather than a written one. I should have said ‘story about him’ – sorry, that was really unclear on my part. And I remember reading The Story of the Eye on the train, and being torn between holding it away from me and not wanting any innocent passengers who could then read over my shoulder to suffer! But I quite like his theoretical writings sometimes, like Guilty, and On Eroticism.

  • Jeane Freeman

    Anybody know where I can get a copy of the book Revenge by Jim Harrison?

  • Mine is in an edition titled Legends of the Fall, which includes that novella, Revenge, and one other.

  • I love that opening paragraph, too. It reminds me more of London than either Faulkner or Hemingway. Like London, Harrison’s prose very often pays homage to Darwin by emphasizing patterns in nature that link human animals with non-human ones. There’s no divide. Just gradual steps of difference. Anyhow, once the vulture takes flight, a profoundly philosophic coyote takes over, observing everything.

  • London is an interesting comparison; I haven’t read anything by him in many many years so I couldn’t say so myself but it does sound about right. Nice with the vulture–>coyote too!