Sundog (Contemporary Classics (Washington Square Press))

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9780671741518: Sundog (Contemporary Classics (Washington Square Press))

Recovering from a fall down the face of a three-hundred-foot dam in South American, Robert Corvus Strang, a self-educated foreman who works on giant dam projects, recalls his hard but exhilarating life

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About the Author:

Jim Harrison is the author of three volumes of novellas, Legends of the Fall, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and Julip; seven novels, Wolf, A Good Day to Die, Farmer, Warlock, Sundog, Dalva, and The Road Home; seven collections of poetry; and a collection of nonfiction, Just Before Dark. He has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in northern Michigan and Arizona.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

So I moved slowly north, passing through dozens of springs, virtually traveling north with greening spring herself overhead and below, pausing here and there to wait for her and for my own courage to gather. You see, I was on the verge of doing something truly different in my life, something totally unexampled. Usually I drove north along the Eastern Seaboard to New York City and, later in June, to our cottage near Sag Harbor. My wife would fly ahead, lacking my affection for long drives. But now I had lost both the modest New York co-op and the Sag Harbor property to her in the divorce -- not so much lost, but gave them up in an attack of kindness, much to the disgust of my lawyers and accountant. She was shocked but happy, what with a boy and a girl in their early teens from a previous marriage. My motive, oddly, was the memory of an unhappy move from Marquette to East Lansing, Michigan, at age twelve. The experience marked me deeply, and since I loved these children and had recently reread the great Dostoevsky, I had become at the same time serene and captious. But then this is not my story, and I will keep my intrusions to a minimum.

On impulse I had bought one of those large, involved, four-wheel-drive sporting vehicles and felt a little silly on the seven-hour drive from Key West to Palm Beach. Later, I decided, I might add some sensible plaid shirts to my wardrobe, a pair of boots, perhaps a hat with a feather in it. The vehicle had delayed me three extra days in Key West while I waited for the addition of cruise control; my gout-ridden right toes could barely handle a gas pedal.

I had been corresponding a bit with the older tycoon mentioned previously -- I have promised not to mention his name because of his prominent political and financial affiliations. This seemed unnecessarily cautionary at the time, but later, when the situation became explosive, even grotesque, the stipulation appeared sensible. In any event, our tycoon had invited me to stop by for dinner, an event I had anticipated because of the reputation of his cook. The real reason for the invitation was that his daughter, the ex-wife of our unmet hero, was home for a week and he thought I might speak to her. I was ill-disposed to her because she hadn't answered a letter, but also curious when I beard she was a doctor specializing in tropical medicine for the World Health Organization.


"The deepest feeling of all is that there should be more," be said, from behind a small but billowing cloud of Havana smoke.

"There is a lot more. You just can't see it from anywhere you bother looking," she said. She was a mean woman, though she clearly loved her father. She had managed to ignore me in a way that couldn't be ignored. I was flushed, almost uncomfortably past enjoying my food and wine. There was an urge to present some fresh, invented credentials to supplant the ones she had apparently dismissed. I kept trying.

"But isn't it inherent in the idea of personality to wear blinders of some sort? You maintain that your father and myself are ignorant of a world that is the target of your intensest curiosity Perhaps we are. Unfortunately, in the gunnysack holding all the possible attitudes on earth, the most offensive one that can be drawn out is that of moral superiority."

"Right!" she laughed. "I hate it. This town forces me into it."

"That's why it puzzles me that you won't talk about your former husband. I told your father that when I've been fishing or hunting in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Africa, wherever, I've met such people and their energy fascinates me. It rarely occurs to people like myself just who actually goes into a jungle and builds an immense dam or who engineers the irrigation of thousands of acres of desert. All I simply proposed is that I write about this man, say for Vanity Fair or The New Yorker or Atlantic, because it would be good for us to see this aspect...."

"Maybe you could bring some Giorgio Armani models along, and they could sweep across the top of a dam and Scavullo could shoot them with a leg up against a turbine, or with a group of dark, smoky Brazilian workers."

"You're not being fair." Now I was more than reasonably pissed off.

"I'm being quite fair. It's such silly, scheming bullshit. We've become like the French. Everything must be incroyable or bizarre. If the information is sufficiently novel, it's a twenty-minute buzz while the bath is being drawn, sort of a three-dollar round-trip ticket before bedtime. Your type is drunk on novelty, not reality."

"You're the most unbelievable bitch I've ever met." I gulped my Calvados and choked. The father roared with laughter and pounded the table, then I somehow began to strangle and hyperventilate at the same time. The room began to dim as if by a rheostat, and I was facedown in my pear sorbet and chèvre cheese. I barely felt their hands on my shoulders as they helped me, with the aid of a black butler, to a sofa. As my vision cleared, I became drenched with cold sweat. She ran out of the room with a certain alarm in her eyes.

"I'm very sorry," I said, trying to get up, but my arms felt numb like rubber ganglia.

"Don't say a thing. Evelyn is hard on people, to put it mildly."

"I'm so sorry." She bad returned with a medical bag and the trace of a smile. I was too frightened to be angry, and she had softened to the point of becoming attractive. She intently checked my heart rate and blood pressure, during which I could see most of her breasts. Somehow they looked like serious breasts, the sort that an effete writer would never get to tinker with.

"Not to panic you, but you're in terrible shape. Very high pulse rate, blood pressure 165 over 112, at least thirty pounds overweight." She slapped my tummy. "You could support an African village on what you spend on your gut." Then she gave me a sedative and denied me a nightcap. I was sent up to bed with two kindly handshakes.

In the morning I was alone in the house, except for the servants. To my delight, the butler delivered an ample breakfast along with The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the Miami Herald for spice. There was also an envelope from Evelyn which I opened immediately.


Father chided me for bitchiness which was the reason, he reminded me, that mother was exiled to Rancho Mirage for a death tan. Not quite sure what to say about dear Strang. I had met him several times, then got to know him when I treated him for schistosomiasis. Haven't seen him since the accident, but reading the company's report the prognosis isn't good. Also the herbal remedy he tried for his petit mal epilepsy, otherwise totally controlled, has further cast him askew. He's had a dozen or so tropical diseases in the past twenty-five years and is pretty much physically burned out.

This isn't very helpful. You might key on what he calls the theory and practice of rivers. If you want to get into gossip, Strang understands women better than any man I have ever met.

Meanwhile, I looked in on you early this morning and you were grasping your penis like a seven-year-old waif. Follow the enclosed diet or you'll never see fifty.

Con amore,
Evelyn


The diet turned out to be suitable for someone with the disposition of a Gandhi, a Sister Theresa, a Gautama Buddha -- some tiny, brown, selfless person. I, however, resolved to follow it and skipped lunch, supplanting the meal with a hundred-mile-long sexual fantasy about the good doctor Evelyn. If I weren't a gentleman, I might let you in on the details. I was heated up to the point that I reached for a bottle of La Begorce in my snack container. The wine broke down my food resolve, and consequently I swerved off the Interstate south of Macon and followed the red dirt road to Home Folks Barbeque, indisputably the best barbeque shack in the United States. Of course, I had been planning this move subconsciously for an entire day. Despite our well-advertised standard of living, a certain heartiness was gone out of American life. I've always insisted that cuisine minceur was the moral equivalent of the foxtrot. On my way south in January, I had stopped at Home Folks for an enormous take-out order. Some of the sauce bad spilled indelibly on the marble tile floor of my Palm Beach rental, costing me several thousand of my damage deposit. A pungent sauce, to say the least, slathered over racks of pork and beef ribs. A sauce not to be confused with those hokum béchamels served over gaily decorated baby hamsters in New York City, home of the most otiose food faddism. Strangely, Doctor Evelyn seemed to peer up from the glistening pool of sauce, and I called for a doggy bag.


Crossing the Ohio-Michigan border, I again lost the sense of my quarry and the good sense behind the pursuit. The otherwise fair May afternoon turned dark and blustery with the arrival of a northern front, well advertised on the radio but somehow unexpected. I imagined Michigan as some huge, bruised mitten, floating in the hostile frigid waters of the Great Lakes. Above the Straits of Mackinac, the Upper Peninsula sat alone, perhaps the least-known land mass in the United States. In this age where every niche on earth has been discovered and rediscovered countless times, there is an open secret why the upper Midwest is generally ignored: it is relatively charmless, and it competes with Siberia for the least hospitable climate on earth. Perhaps I'd stop and see my mother, then head for Montana. Or Paris.

My spirits seemed to drag under the car when I noted an Irish setter, a big male, trotting up the median strip with a jaunty gait, as if Route 75 bad been created for him. As I passed, be darted toward the southernbound lanes, where an immense semi struck him square and he was burled brutally upward and out of view.

It was a mile before I exhaled. My life narrowed to the gray, windswept highway, and my remaining support systems diminished into the ugliness of the blurred scenery. It was what a friend of mine, a former infantry lieutenant in Viet Nam, called the "old organ slide," where all sense of a personal destiny is lost. For a moment the dog had become the Irish setter of my youth, but then be had died at the end of my bed one winter night. And what had become of that shy, red-haired girl I had loved as a young man in New York? It was Merlin who invented the yo-yo which mirrored so perfectly those mood shifts, before he sank wisely back into the ooze of history. Otherwise we would have had an Eichmann trial for Merlin, and the world would have been attentive for a change.


I spent a disarming three days with my mother, mostly reading about the Upper Peninsula and studying maps, a wonderfully senseless vice. When a housecat can't figure out what to do, it merely sits down. We made an obligatory trip to the cemetery, since I wasn't going to be there for Memorial Day. (I had never been there for Memorial Day.) But first, at dawn, we went bird-watching, certainly her ruling passion. I had been worried about the apparent rate of her aging, but I could barely keep up with her as we looked for the first of the migratory warblers. These tiny birds, barely noticed by the world, were her obsession. We reached the cemetery before the gates were open and sat in the car drinking coffee from a thermos, waiting for the attendant. The earth had become lovely and pale green again after the storm passed through. A loutish gardener with a namepatch stating "Bert" appeared with keys, announcing to us, "The early bird gets the worm," a statement Mother thought wonderful and I thought in bad taste. She saw a vireo near the ten-year-old grave which she had cultivated with flowering crab and a mountain orange. My father had been a botanist, and I came up short of knowing more than a few trees and plants. I was embarrassed to be hungry.

"Let's go have breakfast," she said. She was always on the money when it came to actualities: death, worms, food, Mozart, and birds owned their anointed places.


Mother awoke me before dawn, under her lifelong conviction that all journeys should start as early in the day as possible. We were always the first to arrive at picnics, planes, ball games. I was red-eyed and frayed from a late night of studying notes and drinking an emergency pint of whiskey. The whiskey performed the function it was designed for -- several hours of grace in which the drinker becomes convinced again of his viability as a human being; his personal narrative resumes structure, and the grace of knowing what one is doing returns.

We crept out the back door after a bowl of oatmeal and fruit -- I had stupidly shared with her Evelyn's diet. Our stealth was to be my brief good-bye shot at bird-watching. There was a myrtle warbler building a nest at the edge of the backyard. The bird was minuscule, somewhat like a smudgy mouse with wings. Then we made a skirmish in a clearing near a swamp to see a male woodcock in its mating flight. She told me that they perform the dance from evening until dawn for two months in the spring. I watched intently, mostly because I have eaten these birds in France, where they go under the name bécasse. I told her so.

"How shameful, son. Think how they dance all night for love, month after month. You've certainly neglected God's plan for your life. You've been divorced twice, and your health is a mess. And you eat these unbearably lovely birds. I still love you, but it's not always easy."

She gave me a kiss on the cheek, then went back to the woodcock, who wheeled higher and higher in gyres, with odd little cries in the first light, then returned toward earth in an amazing, fluttering spiral. I wished him luck. I waved at Mother from my absurd vehicle, but she hadn't turned around. I wished myself luck.

Copyright © 1984 by Jim Harrison

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