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TRUE NORTH by Jim Harrison


by Jim Harrison

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8021-1773-2
Publisher: Grove

Brooding, occasionally brutal eighth novel, linked to the author’s previous work (The Road Home, 1998, etc.) by blistering contempt for the diseased American polity and acute existential melancholy.

To be sure, narrator David Burkett shares with other Harrison protagonists a hearty appreciation of food, drink, sex, and the pleasures of hiking, swimming, camping, and fishing in what remains of the American wilderness. But his wealthy family made its money by despoiling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with logging and mining, and David becomes obsessed as a teenager with the idea that he must research and record the Burketts’ crimes. Younger sister Cynthia simply rejects their father, a vicious, alcoholic molester of underage girls who's pillaged his children's trust funds; she marries their yardman's son and builds a healthier life. David, by contrast, can't seem to escape the toxic family legacy. In a narrative that moves by fits and starts from the mid-1960s through 1985, he chronicles his anguished search for religious faith, a series of failed relationships with women, and his 20-year struggle to turn his “project” into a meaningful, publishable account of what his relatives have done to the environment and to those under their feet, who “weren't quite people or human” to the robber barons who forged capitalist America. These are grim themes, and since the only humor here comes from the grown-up David’s caustic comments about the idiocies of his younger self, one has to admit that True North is not always a lot of fun to read. The first savage climax comes with the father's rape of a 12-year-old girl, daughter of an army buddy who has worked for him ever since; it closes with a reprisal more gruesome than that in Harrison's famous 1979 novella “Revenge.” Even David's charming dog Carla, the only female with whom he has a fully satisfactory relationship, dies in this somber book’s saddest scene.

Bleak and uncompromising, but stout-hearted readers will be impressed by Harrison’s fierce passion and dark poetry.