An ascended master of the form returns to the novella, turning in three very different pieces with autobiographical elements in common.
“To be honest, which often I am not,” Harrison (The Big Seven, 2014, etc.) writes in a telling phrase early on, announcing good intentions while reserving the prerogatives of invention. Yet, the lead of the title story, minstrel and mongrel alike, is someone very like Harrison, challenged of eye but not of vision and a trencherman and drinker of formidable appetites and no real interest in scaling back to better fit his advancing years. The big book he has been promising his publisher is slow to emerge, just as his abilities at 70 are beginning to show their age, causing him to ponder the prospects of using performance-enhancement pills and of quitting the writerly world to raise pigs. He settles for trying to write poems instead, inconclusively; as Harrison writes, “Life is short on conclusions and that’s why it’s often a struggle to end a poem.” Some of Harrison’s lines are throwaways, though a less accomplished writer would love to have written them; but in the main, he writes with his customary rough grace and bodhisattva wisdom, whether comically treating sexual improprieties or reflecting deeply on the meaning of life. As with Dalva, Harrison is skilled at writing from a woman’s point of view, and his second story, set in Montana and across the water in England, concerns a woman, Catherine, who likes nothing better than twitting her moneyed neighbors; she, too, shares biographical points with Harrison, from a love for steak to a fondness for Key West. The closing story, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas,” is a touch short for a novella and slighter than the other pieces, a Pynchon-esque goof involving one Detective Sunderson (of The Great Leader fame) who’s on the trail of some bad actors inside a cult-y sangha but is never too busy not to ogle the long legs of a neighbor—trademark Harrison territory, in other words.
Grand entertainments all and a pleasure.