Revisiting: Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

So far, the revisiting project hasn’t brought me any radical new insights about the (still very few) books from my past that I’ve picked back up, but it has strengthened in me the feeling that you barely read anything until you read it for the second time. Are all first reads worthless? Is it possible to savor them enough; am I just failing at it? I will do my best not to despair but instead to just enjoy these looks back and get what I can from them.

This week I revisited Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella, Legends of the Fall. For those familiar with the film version, the novella is both very similar and very different. There are a number of plot points that are changed—for one thing, the novella opens with the three Ludlow brothers riding off to Calgary to join the Canadian army, something that doesn’t happen until long after we’ve met Susannah (who, in the novella, was originally meant for Alfred and ends up unceremoniously engaged to Tristan). But the overall feel of the story, its sense of place, and the struggle of the brothers and the rest of their extended family at the ranch are very close.

The very first sentence is somewhat strange: “Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917).” That parenthetical, who is it for? In the next sentence, “[a]n old Cheyenne named One Stab” becomes the first character in the novella to be named. Much will be described about him, but he will remain largely in the shadows. The brothers, though it takes Harrison a bit longer to baptize them, seem to come clear as soon as he does:

And a little further on when they all heard the doleful cry of a wolf at midday, they pretended that they had not heard it for the cry at midday was the worst of omens. They took lunch as they roe as if to escape the mournful sound and not wnating to sit at the edge of a glade where the sound might descend on them again. Alfred, the oldest brother, said a prayer while Tristan, the middle brother, cursed and spurred his mount past Alfred and One Stab. Samuel, the youngest, dallied along with his eyes sharp on the flora and fauna. He was the apple of the family’s eye, and at eighteen already had one year in at Harvard studying in the traition of Agassiz at the Peabody Museum. When One Stab paused at the far edge of a great meadow to wait for Samuel to catch up, his heart froze on seeing the roan horse emerge from the woods with its rider carrying half a bleached buffalo skull against his face and his laughter carrying across the meadow to the old Indian.

And thus boys ride off to war… One thing you probably wouldn’t know if you did happen to need that parenthetical above is that the Ludlows haven’t wasted much time in doing this. The war in Europe broke out only at the end of July 1914, and in three scant months they are on their way. Think of how long it must have taken the news to even travel to them, and you get an idea of their impatience and how they might have looked at the war. A homesteader they will meet on the next page does not even know a war is going on.

More on the differences between the brothers:

Tristan shot a deer to the disgust of Samuel who only ate the deer out of instinctive politeness. Alfred, as usual, was ruminative and noncommittal, wondering how One Stab and Tristan could eat so much meat. He preferred beef. When Tristan and One Stab ate the liver first Samuel laughed and said he himself was an omnivore who would end up as a herbivore, but Tristan was a true carnivore who could store up and either ride or sleep or drink and whore for days.

And, finally, just before the first break in the text:

In the month of training before shipping by train to the troopships in Quebec, Alfred quickly became an officer, Samuel an aide-de-camp due to his scholarly German and ability to read topographical maps. Tristan, however, brawled and drank and was demoted to wrangling the horses, where he in fact felt quite comfortable. Uniforms embarrassed him and the drills bored him to tears. Were it not for his fealty to his father and his notion that Samuel needed looking after he would have escaped the barracks and headed back south on a stolen horse on the track of One Stab.

Just as I discovered in American Pastoral, there is an enormous amount of telegraphing in these first few pages. Tristan is a “true carnivore” who can binge on anything with great physicality. Alfred is boring, with his beef and his rule-following. And Samuel is mostly dewy-eyed and young, too nice to want to eat meat and too nice to refuse it when offered, but thinks himself ready to go kill Germans at his first opportunity. The cry of that wolf on the very first day of their journey…Tristan’s lack of interest in the war and desire to follow One Stab…how do writers manage to say so much right away without us noticing, without having everything spoiled? Foreshadowing can be subtle and less so, I suppose, and this is exactly the point of good foreshadowing: to set a scene and a mood without giving away the game. It can be surprising how much machinery there is to lay bare.

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.)