Though these two novellas feel slight in comparison with the best of the prolific author’s novels, the ways in which they complement and contrast with each other attest to his range.
Both The Land of Unlikeness and the title novella return Harrison (The Great Leader, 2011, etc.) to familiar territory, his native Michigan, with protagonists at very different stages of their lives. The autumnal opening novella finds a once-successful painter turned academic returning home to care for his mother, allowing his sister to experience some of the cosmopolitan life beyond Michigan that he has. Neither the author nor his protagonist takes himself overly seriously, though a sense of mortality pervades the story along with the possibility of renewal. “You’re not going to live forever, Mister Bigshot,” warns the mother, urging her son to reconcile with his daughter, who took sides after his divorce. He reunites with a boyhood love, rediscovers his passion for painting and reaffirms his engagement with a life that he has been watching from the sidelines: “It occurred to him that only purity of intent would save his own sorry soul. If he were to continue to paint he had to do so without the trace of the slumming intellectual toting around his heavy knapsack of ironies. He was well into his third act and further delay would be infamous.” By contrast, the title story shows the first act of its protagonist’s life reaching climax, as a 17-year-old boy who lives to swim (in rivers) experiences his sexual initiation, and the complications that follow, as he swims his way through a magical, rite-of-passage quest. “[H]umans are ill-prepared for the miraculous,” he discovers. “It’s too much of a jolt and the human soul is not spacious enough to deal with it.” Ultimately, he realizes that “there was a world out there to swim through.”
Everyday epiphanies from a major author.