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The Literary Seductions of a Macho Woman : DALVA by Jim Harrison (E. P. Dutton/ Seymour Lawrence: $18.95; 324 pp.)

April 10, 1988|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is assistant Book Review editor

Dalva has kept a light burning in her heart for a dead husband of less than a day; for her father lost in Korea, and most of all, it seems, for the Sioux nation driven out of their rich Nebraska grasslands a century ago. She comes from a family strangely at home among the dead. She's inherited a farmhouse from a beloved grandfather that is more than adjacent to a gardenlike cemetery full of ancestors; in the house itself, death maintains a terrifying, literal presence.

Jim Harrison's new novel, "Dalva," is not a story of the supernatural, but it is a tale about ghosts, haunting, about the continuing presence of those departed from this world. It is also the story of a remarkably modern woman's search for her son relinquished at his birth. At the same time, it is the saga of a fascinating, eccentric pioneer befriended by the beleaguered native peoples of the Plains at the time that their world is closing in on them.

I've never read another Harrison novel, but I've spoken with several men--writer John Nichols among them--who are passionate fans of his work. His books that are repeatedly recommended are "Legends of the Fall" and "A Good Day to Die." No woman I know has expressed an interest in Harrison. So "Dalva" may be an important departure for this Michigan writer so associated with the outdoors, with what might be termed "macho," since the central figure here is a woman. He could win a whole new readership. He certainly deserves it.

Harrison is not a very neat, linear storyteller. Like a photographer, he's interested in the angles. He works in vignettes, in half-formed, half-finished episodes. (Reading Harrison is a little bit like eavesdropping on a couple of people engaged in a conversation in an elevator who step out at the very point where their exchange becomes gossipy--the doors close and those of us left inside never get to hear who did what to whom.) Dalva has a sister, for instance, Ruth, a wealthy divorcee in her 40s who is messing around with a priest that she's trying to get to impregnate her. What we are allowed to listen in on is lurid and humorous, but we are cut off, finally, with no sense of what actually drives Ruth to such extreme behavior.

Harrison gives us fleeting, fragmented portraits. Even his main characters slip in and out of focus as frequently as they make entrances and exits. Some of his most colorful, vivid characters make the briefest of appearances: the restless Uncle Paul (with his multigenerational seraglio of Mexican mistresses)--a wonderful naturalist and writer. We are privy to a sample of his writing in one instance, and then never read another written word of Paul's innermost thoughts; a taciturn, gentle cowboy selling puppies who becomes a lover of Dalva's, then sort of drifts off; an elderly Sioux woman, Rachel, whose greatest treat is a short road trip and whose candy-pink, dime-store scarf signifies for Dalva the extreme poverty the Sioux have been reduced to.

Duane Stone Horse, Dalva's lover-husband, is the central romantic figure here. His presence is felt by the very fact of his absence. Duane's spirit hovers everywhere over the story, guiding Dalva like a guardian angel. He's leading her home.

The poetic love story between Dalva and Duane is only one-third of the three points of view that Harrison exercises here. Dalva narrates parts one and three. Part two comes to us via professor Michael--more about him later. The third story line comes to us through journal entries about the frontier adventures of Dalva's amazing ancestor, Northridge.

At 45, Dalva's been married once--for less than a whole day--(a strange and tragic sequence) but has essentially remained a single woman who has been on the move most of her life. She grows up the daughter of a well-to-do, Nebraska farming family of mixed Anglo and Sioux blood. The name Dalva is derived from a Brazilian samba: "Estrella Dalva," Portuguese for morning as in Morning Star. Morning, of course, also brings to mind "mourning."

Dalva wanders through the Southwest; travels abroad; drifts to New York, where she lands a job with a sleazy documentary film maker; she winds up employed as a social worker in Santa Monica, which is where we find her when the novel opens.

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