Jim Harrison is an American master. The Beast God Forgot to Invent offers stories of culture and wildness, of men and beasts and where they overlap. A wealthy man retired to the Michigan woods narrates the tale of a younger man decivilized by brain damage. A Michigan Indian wanders Los Angeles, hobnobbing with starlets and screenwriters while he tracks an ersatz Native-American activist who stole his bearskin. An aging "alpha canine," the author of three dozen throwaway biographies, eats dinner with the ex-wife of his overheated youth, and must confront the man he used to be.
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The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense. The discounted sociologist Jared Schmitz, who was packed off from Harvard to a minor religious college in Missouri before earning tenure when a portion of his doctoral dissertation was proven fraudulent, stated that in a culture in the seventh stage of rabid consumerism the peripheral always subsumes the core, and the core disappears to the point that very few of the citizenry can recall its precise nature. Schmitz had stupidly confided to his lover, a graduate student, that he had in fact invented certain French and German data, and when he abandoned her for a Boston toe dancer this graduate student ratted on him. This is neither specifically here nor there to our story other than to present an amusing anecdote on the true nature of academic life. Also, of course, the poignant message of a culture spending its time as it spends its money; springing well beyond the elements of food, clothes, and shelter into the suffocating welter of the unnecessary that has become necessary.
So what? This is the question that truly haunts us, coming as it does at the nether end of any statement of consequence beyond the moment, as if grave matters must prove their essential worth in a competitive arena and not demanded of the meaningless activities that saturate human lives.
But I must move on because this is actually a statement offered to a coroner's inquest in Munising, Michigan, the county seat of Alger County in the Upper Peninsula, concerning the death of a young man of my acquaintance, Joseph Lacort. Locally he was known as just plain Joe, and he drowned thirty miles out beyond the harbor mouth near Caribou Shoals in Lake Superior. Everyone thinks he was looking for his fat Labrador retriever, Marcia, who swam pointlessly after ducks and geese and there was a large flock of Canadian geese in the harbor that day. But then what sort of madman would swim all evening and all night looking for a dog? Joe would. Myself, I think Joe committed suicide, though I consider this a detail mostly pertinent to myself as his remaining relatives doubtless feel well shut of this troublesome creature. But then the word "suicide" is a banality that doesn't fit this extraordinary situation. Perhaps he felt summoned by the mystical creatures he thought he had seen.
Before I forget, yes I do forget who I am, no longer a matter of particular interest to me, my name is Norman Arnz, and I'm sixty-seven years old. I'm semi-retired and from Chicago where I worked in commercial real estate and as a rare-book dealer. Not that it matters but I'm the only one in my larger family, none of whom I have any contact with — we share a mutual disregard — who readapted the family name "Arnz" after it was changed to "Arns" during the First World War when the Boche were a plague. My mother was mixed Scandinavian, so I'm a northern European mongrel.
I've spent summers in my cabin my entire life since my father bought the property while a mining engineer for Cleveland Cliffs in Marquette, Michigan, early in the Great Depression which has now filtered down into millions of little ones in our inhabitants. Excuse this modest joke, but then any product involved with depression has done very well on the market for those dedicated to this otiose poker game. When some clod begins a sentence with "My broker ..." I immediately turn my back.
I told the coroner I couldn't come to Munising because of failing health when, in fact, I avoid the village because of a melancholy love affair with a barmaid a decade ago in the last deliquescent flowering of my hormones. It was a love affair to me but a well-paying job to Gretel, not her real name of course, but then our miserable affair was public knowledge in Munising.
I took the precaution of phoning Chicago the other day to determine if whether Joe's death was suicide or accidental had any bearing on the insurance money due his mother. It doesn't. She's an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, deeply involved in her third abysmal marriage, this time to a logger over in Iron Mountain. I knew her first slightly in the sixties — she grew up here — when she ran off with a nitwit Coast Guardsman who became Joe's father for a brief time.
Before I get started I must say that the end of Joe's life was his business. Swimming north in those cold, choppy waters I can imagine his croaking laughter, the only laughter he was capable of after his accident some two years before. The aftereffect of the motorcycle accident was called a traumatic brain injury, or a closed-head injury as there was no penetration by the beech tree he ran into while quite drunk. It was lucky indeed for the tavern owner that Joe's last six-pack was consumed on the beach before he roared off on his Ducati. I could go on here about the pointlessly litigious nature of our culture but then would anyone listen? Of course not. Even my wife said soon after we divorced some twenty years ago that she looked forward to being married to someone who didn't make long speeches or lectures during dinner. In fact my local friend Dick Rathbone, with whom I've been close since we were children, actually turns off his hearing aid when I begin one of my speeches. Luckily certain old retired men on short rations will listen to me at the tavern as long as I continue buying drinks.
Until his accident in his mid-thirties Joe owned an interest in three successful sporting goods stores in central Michigan which enabled him to spend his summers up here. I've heard different figures but I'd guess his entire net worth, some seven hundred fifty thousand dollars, was spent on his unsuccessful rehabilitation until last May when Dick Rathbone and his sister Edna kept an eye on him for the welfare department. Dick had worked as a lowly employee of the Department of Natural Resources for thirty or so years and it was his idea, quite brilliant I think, to attach telemetric devices to both Joe and Marcia to keep track of their whereabouts. Certain newcomers to the community thought it inhumane (whatever that could mean in view of the past century) but then newcomers are generally ignored on important matters because of the essential xenophobia of the human condition. Due to his impact with the beech tree, the flubbery rattle of the brain within its shell referred to technically as "coup contracoup," Joe lost most of his ability at visual memory, even for faces such as his mother's and my own, a deficiency called "prosopagnosia." Joe's very least problem was boredom because everything he saw he saw for the first time, over and over. Each of his dawns began as a brave new world, to borrow a phrase from Aldous Huxley whose first editions have remained curiously stagnant in price.
Sometimes Joe followed Marcia but most often she followed him. His nexus was the rather ornate birdbath in Dick Rathbone's backyard. Joe carried a good Marine-surplus compass and another was pinned to his belt. My cabin was a hundred seventy-three degrees northeast of Rathbone's birdbath, a matter of some five miles though this wasn't relevant to Joe. I have it on good witness that in June near the summer solstice he walked all the way to Seney and back to get a particular kind of ice-cream bar that Dick's sister had forgotten while grocery shopping, a round-trip of fifty miles which took about fourteen hours, a double marathon though Joe viewed his pace as leisurely. A park ranger at the nearby National Lakeshore had maintained Joe walked up and down the immense sand dunes at the same speed. When I asked him about this he clumsily explained that it was apparently due to his injury, and that he was helpless to change his gait which was a little problematical during his night walking due to the brush.
Frankly I didn't care at all for him before his injury. Despite his financial success downstate he would become immediately loutish up here, aping his local friends. It's hard enough to have your foot in one world, let alone two, and catering to egregious pricks out of childhood nostalgia is a poor way to conduct your life. He used to drink rather vast amounts of beer, which caused pointless quarrels with whatever girlfriend was visiting. The impulse behind this kind of beer drinking is mysterious. Dick Rathbone has supposed they actually like to piss which they will do a dozen times in an evening. I called an old friend in Chicago on this matter out of idle curiosity. This friend is a true rarity, a gay psychiatrist of Italian parentage named Roberto. I exclude his last name because the world is his closet, as it were. Oddly enough Roberto agreed with our humble Dick Rathbone, but I can't really imagine the nature of this impulse. We all have our limits, don't we? The will to pee, indeed.
Fairly early one morning in July Sonia, a registered nurse from Lansing and one of Joe's girlfriends, showed up at my cabin saying she had agreed to meet him there. It was already warm and she wore an unnerving shorts and halter. When I brought her coffee I could see her nipples and when she drew her leg up on her chair I caught a glimpse of pubic hair. Unlike women in my younger days she was utterly nonchalant about exposing herself and I felt the mildest of buzzing sensations plus a certain giddiness I hadn't known in years. Naturally I tried to determine immediately if this was a good or bad experience and came up with something between the two. We are mere victims, mere supplicants, in the face of what a Mexican friend calls the "divina enchilada."
Her knees were more than a bit abraded and I retrieved some Bactine and cotton which she allowed me to administer with a smile. She said Joe had said he was walking up the small river, in the river at that, to visit the grave of an infant bear he had buried in late May. I asked her if she had fallen and she laughed heartily saying that Joe had "fucked" her relentlessly "dog style" on the beach which had been hard on her knees. Now I had met Sonia several times before but one would think this kind of information would be shared with only the closest of friends. I nodded and allowed myself a chuckle. Nurses do tend to be matter-of-fact because of their contiguity to death. After about fifteen minutes she asked if she could rest on the couch and assumed an even more daring position before she began the slightest of snores. Here I was, a prisoner in my own house, trying to read a previously fascinating botanical text but unable to pass through a couple of sentences without another look at Sonia. I admit at one point I knelt rather closely with a devil-may-care attitude toward getting caught. After all, it was my house.
And thus the morning passed until near noon when I fell asleep with my face pressed against the botanical text rather than something more interesting. I awoke to the sound of the shower and Marcia, Joe's Labrador, barking loudly. I was slow to react, dreaming of all things of my favorite Chicago steakhouse, and damping a botanical plate with drool, when Sonia rushed past me in a towel. She stooped outside and petted Marcia who was obviously trying to get someone to follow her. My concern was leavened over the missing Joe somewhat by noting what a poor job the towel was doing covering Sonia. She was all for following Marcia which I advised to be a bad idea. Instead I called Dick Rathbone on my car cellular — there was no phone line to my cabin — and told him the problem. While we waited Sonia sat on a chair in her towel and began weeping. I stood beside her patting and rubbing her shoulders to comfort her. When a woman weeps I am desperately uncomfortable partly because neither my mother nor wife wept except on the rarest occasions. Sonia blubbered on about Joe's absolutely hopeless condition which she certainly knew as a nurse. I began, of all things, to get an erection which would be obvious in my summer-weight chinos. I tried to move away but Sonia grabbed my arm weeping piteously then, noting my erection, gave it the brisk finger snap that nurses do, laughed, and called me an "old goat." she dressed right smack in front of me with a boldly amused look, my heart aching with her insult.
Dick Rathbone arrived with his telemetric receiver and we set off down the tangled riverbank with Sonia and Marcia both choosing to wade and swim along beside us. We had gone perhaps a mile before we found Joe fast asleep on a sand spit near an eddy. Dick pointed out the cairn of stones upon the bank where Joe had buried the baby bear which its mother had destroyed, so said Dick, because one of its front legs was deformed. Joe had found this detail to be unendurable.
When Sonia shook him awake aided by Marcia's face lapping, Joe announced that he had seen something quite extraordinary, a brand-new mammalian species, a beast that he didn't know existed. Dick whispered to me about adjusting Joe's medication, then asked kindly about the whereabouts of the tracks. Joe said the animal didn't leave tracks but he knew the general area it favored, mentioning a location well to the south which I won't identify now to preserve it from curiosity seekers. For her good intentions, Dick gave Marcia a number of biscuits, which he kept for that purpose. Marcia's sole real fidelity was to Joe and anyone else was fair game. Once I met her near a woodlot on a back street of the village. She acted alarmed and enervated so I followed her and she led me persistently to the grocery store so that I might buy her a snack.
I wasn't inclined to sit there near the sandbar and watch Joe go back to sleep so I left the chore to Sonia, Dick, and the faithful Marcia. I was amused to note that every time Dick glanced at Sonia his big, floppy ears reddened. It was with relief that I silently handed over the burden of lust to my old friend and headed upstream toward my cabin for lunch and a hard-earned nap. Sonia reminded me of a miserable poem by Robert Frost called "The Road Not Taken."
Horrors! It's only July and we've had three days of dense cold rain with the wind northwest out of Canada. The life has drained out of me onto the maple floor. A business partner from Nebraska once told me that I kept my "lid screwed on too tight." Maybe so, but not that I've noticed except at times like now when the weather and my own contentious moods throw me for more than a loop. Dear Coroner, I loathe everything I've said but out of laziness I'm not changing a word. These are the first I've written in several days and I'll try to get more directly at the heart of the matter which, of course, is no longer beating. Right now I feel that my human tank is drained and I am the sediment, the scum on the bottom, the excrescence of my own years. It occurs to me that the memory of Sonia sitting in the chair a few feet from where I am now may have precipitated this funk. Nothing so much torments a geezer as the thought of the unlived life. For some reason she summons up an image of a steelworker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.
And I want to be fair-minded with Joe. This, after all, isn't about me but my departed young friend. There is ever so slight an aura around him now in my mind that must resemble the origin of some primitive religion. I just recalled one late June dawn when he arrived quite literally covered with mosquito and blackfly bites, muddy clothes, quite eager to show me the one-hundred thirty-seven water sounds he had logged in his notebook. What was I to make of this? Frankly it was interesting. Here was a man who quite literally saw everything for the first time every single day but had a quite extraordinary (a euphemism!) perception of the aural, if not the visual, though this is open to contention. The list of water sounds included the names of the creeks, rivers, lakes, also the morphology and weather conditions that had a part in their creation. I suppose all water may be perceived to be going downhill except in tidal situations where the receding tide is functionally going uphill to gather itself. There were a number of rubrics, squiggles, beside each item in Joe's list to remind him of the actual sound which he insisted over breakfast he could actually rehear. Joe bolted his food like Marcia who was scratching the door. I made her a plate of several fried eggs in bacon grease, her favorite. Did I say that Marcia also disappeared the night of Joe's drowning? His body was eventually found, of course, dear Coroner. You have it, whatever it really is, in your possession. Marcia was never seen again and it's unthinkable that a Labrador retriever could drown. Perhaps she joined his imaginary creatures, if indeed they could be termed "imaginary." More than likely this happy lady was carried off in a tourist's car.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Beast God Forgot to Invent"
Copyright © 2000 Jim Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
The Beast God Forgot to Invent,
I Forgot to Go to Spain,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a collection of three superb stories.....Harrison has such an incredible command of language. He says so much in a simple sentence....paragraphs are wonders of thought. I love the writers style...and I plan to read his works. I am recommending this book to all my avid reader friends. Jim Harrison is in the league of John Irving.....great American literature.
Three novella's, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Westward Ho, and I Forgot to Go to Spain are interesting, entertaining and well written. They show, once again, Harrison's penchant for creating characters that are out of the main stream and often have no regard for money, whether overly rich or overly poor.