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Women's Intimations : THE WOMAN LIT BY FIREFLIES by Jim Harrison (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence: $19.95; 247 pp.; 0-395-48884-2)

August 19, 1990|Judith Freeman | Freeman is the author of "The Chinchilla Farm," a novel published last year by W. W. Norton

Having now published six novels, seven books of poetry and two collections of novellas, Jim Harrison has reached a wonderful place in his writing. There was always great strength to his novels and stories, a compelling sense of movement and character, prose marked by clarity and beautifully eclectic erudition, ribaldry and humor. Set in the West and Midwest, his stories feature rebel characters, outsiders living close to nature, dissolute in their appetite for alcohol and women but guided by a strong conscience and a penchant for honesty.

With his last two books, something else has graced the work, a tender, almost androgynous understanding of the human condition, which allows him to write convincingly in either a male or female voice, widening even further the range of his work.

This was most evident in "Dalva," published two years ago--a novel written largely from the perspective of a woman who is searching for the son she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier. In "Dalva," Harrison wrote: "Most women have intimations of a higher fidelity to the spirit and to a love beyond human weakness and imperfection." In a sense, it is to that higher fidelity that Harrison's books aspire--an enlarged and generous vision of a troubled but remarkably beautiful world, where a sensuous passion for life may be not just the best but the only revenge.

In each new work of Harrison's--and this includes his often hilarious and erudite magazine articles on food and travel--the same distinctively personal voice is present. He is unfailingly entertaining but he is much more--a haunting, gifted writer who can't be shoved into any category. Furthermore, his work seems to be getting stronger, and one wonders if he won't finally move beyond the small but passionate following he has built up over the years to receive the wider recognition he deserves.

"The Woman Lit by Fireflies" should help. It is--like an earlier work, "Legends of the Fall"--a collection of three novellas, each of which is written in a distinctly different voice. His basic power comes from his directness. (It's rebel voices we hear, not the timid squeaking of a dandified stylist.) One story is written from the perspective of a man ("Brown Dog"), one from that of a woman ("The Woman Lit by Fireflies") and one, "Sunset Limited," mixes the voices.

At the opening of the title novella (which first appeared in the New Yorker), Clare, a 50-year-old woman with two grown children, is driving down the freeway with her husband, who is listening to his weekly financial lecture on tape. A migraine is closing in on her. She is deeply unhappy. Quite recently, her closest friend Zilpha died, as did her beloved dog. Her husband is a dried-up, condescending boor.

When they pull over at a rest stop, Clare goes into the ladies room and leaves a note attached to the toilet stall: "I am in the small red car driving east. My husband has been abusing me. Do not believe anything he says. Call my daughter." She then heads out the door, scales a fence behind the Welcome Center and disappears into a cornfield, having chosen this moment to finally leave her husband.

Most of the novella takes place during the night Clare spends hiding in the cornfield, reviewing her life as she rests in the little cave of dried husks she's constructed: "It was the nest of a not very skilled animal, a temporary measure like a deer bed in high grass." She boils ditch water, nurses a fire, tests her small knowledge of survival and paces under the moon, remembering the accidents and events that have brought her to this point.

The night is her crucible. Everything will change afterward. Each detail of her night in the cornfield strengthens her resolve, as does each remembered incident; the beautifully told tale ends two weeks later with Clare in Paris.

Harrison understands how women react to things, how they examine things up close. Women have an intimate relationship with nature: Clare sees not only a rabbit but the little engorged ticks in its ears. In this lovely novella, nature itself becomes the cocoon in which a woman enshrouds herself.

In "Brown Dog," we hear another kind of voice, the voice of the Man of Nature and Appetite, the hard-drinking, womanizing B. D., or Brown Dog--not quite Indian, not quite white, a failed Bible student who has found a corpse while scavenging shipwrecks:

"Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian. It was an island sea called Lake Superior. The Indian, and he was a big one, was sitting there on a ledge of rock in about seventy feet of water. There was a frayed rope attached to his leg and I had to think the current had carried him from far deeper water."

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