Sunday Morning! Brown Dog by Jim Harrison
My father lives in a tiny cracked and peeling wooden house on a tiny island off the coast of Portland, Maine, from which he sets out every morning to haul lobster traps in a tiny boat, at least for half the year, and carrying with him a large canteen of coffee and a similarly weatherbeaten paperback book. He is fond of Tolkein and books about the ocean, although he avoids onces about shipwrecks or perfect storms. For an entire year, though, he took to reaading through the Bible in its entirety. As we’re told in the Psalms:
“They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; These men shall see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”
I’ve wondered how my dad might respond to the next passages, in which the Lord brings up storm winds in order to inspire fear and awe and reverence in sailors. Becuase he is my dad, I like think he would be defiant.
My father was raised Catholic (I suppose because his father was raised French) but abandoned all of that years ago. He has told me that he stopped believing in God when my mother left him. I don’t think he ever really got over that. He’s now in his 70s, though, and maybe that’s when we’re most likely to wonder what’s up ahead on a shortening road. A few years ago, he started going to Mass again, something he hadn’t done since he was a boy. It apparently did not last very long, though. I asked him how it was going and he told me he’d quit.
Heck, I don’t like that it’s not in Latin now! And I don’t like having to hug people. And I don’t think lust is a sin!
My father is a little unreconstructed, although I think men lose their concern with social norms along with their hair after a certain age. Maybe he was always only semi- constructed. He will embarrass me by making slurping noises and smacking his lips whenever sexy girls are on the TV, although of course they can’t hear him, so I doubt it counts as harassment in a court of law.
My father would probably love Jim Harrison’s character Brown Dog, or B.D., and both of them would think I’m too uptight. And fair enough. It’s hard not to like Brown Dog. In fact, I said that here almost exactly a year ago: “I like that Brown Dog; he’s a good guy.”
Brown Dog is lazy and has no real ambitions, aside from the dream of eating a porterhouse steak every week; and he is seemingly unconcerned with anything except boozing, walking in the woods, and getting laid by zaftig working girls. He has no identification cards aside from a driver’s license, isn’t sure about his parentage, is only half-native, maybe; and was dubbed Brown Dog because a girl with whom he was smitten when just a lad called him this as an insult. He remained in love with her, and pretty much every lass since who has given him kindness. He follows them around like, well, a puppy dog. The (open) secret about Brown Dog is he’s led around by his heart, instead of the anciliary organ a bit lower down that probably comes to mind first. (And is certainly more prominent in the prose.) As his closest friend, a lesbian social worker with whom he’s hopelessly in love, tells B.D.:
You present yourself as a fuckup but the reason you can get laid is that you intensely like women without irony.
We met Brown Dog in a novella of that title in Harrison’s 1990 collection “The Woman Lit by Fireflies.” When we first encountered him, B.D. was diving for sunken junk in Lake Superior with a buddy when he found the corpse of an Indian that he figured might be his father, and which he decided to give a proper burial. In the meantime, though, he’d made the mistake of revealing the location of a burial ground to a grad student who was plying him with sex, tried to scare off her colleagues by burning their tent, and wound up with another criminal charge to his name.
With each succeeding novella, his misadventures get crazier and crazier. Now a hero to outlaws thanks to the criminal charge, he briefly leads a “Red Power” group while trying to outwit dueling cuckolds. That goes south and ends in more charges for throwing firewords, so he flees to California and ends up the driver of an all-too-garrulous screenwriter. That too goes south. Further adventures have him fleeing to Canada to save an ex’s daughter, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, from being put in a state home; losing several teeth to a dentist who subsequently jumps his bones; roadying for a native rock group, but nearly losing that job because he doesn’t understand the concept of backstage passes; and so on and so on. The storyline zigs and zags and rambles like B.D. himself, and, just like life, things just keep happening one after the other. At numerous points, B.D. reflects on the Chinese wish for an uneventful life. It’s all he wants.
Increasingly, I’ve come to believe this is how stories are written, basically- the storyteller comes up with a compelling character, one who they and we naturally want to know more about; and then they throw things at them to see what they do. Nearly every review of the final compendium of Brown Dog stories (published in 2013) compares the caracter to Huck Finn, and they are both overgrown lads who’d rather wander in the woods than do anything else- well, nearly anything else in B.D.’s case. Things just keep happening though.
But here’s something interesting about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer- I read those books when I was 7 or 8 years old and I could still tell you what kind of boys they are, what their personalities are like, who they are. If an untrue depiction of Tom and Huck were to come out, I would be disappointed in the same way I might if someone mischaracterized by cousins. At the heart of those stories are strong characters- in fact, I suspect creating strongly defined characters is about 97% of storytelling. There’s a reason we still know when someone plays one of Shakespeare’s characters incorrectly.
And I also suspect that Sir John Falstaff would have loved Brown Dog. There is something perennial about this character; and the category of “fuckup” seems so arbitrary. Were B.D. to shed the title, he’d have to live his life according to someone else’s specifications, and why do that? He has all he needs to be happy with a tent, a can of SPAM, a case of beer, and the possibility of getting laid. There is a certain category of wisdom literature that aims to teach us that life is worth enjoying, the things we need to be happy so basic and abundant. And, I have to mention that I have a buddy who is exactly like Brown Dog- a large, half-Native, overgrown kid who loves to drink and make jokes and carouse and sleeps with an unjust number of women (who also like to drink and make jokes and carouse). He seems to have discovered some secret, but really it’s just that no one is telling you not to do what makes you happy, aside from you.
One last anecdote: I have a co-worker who is a bullshit artiste; he rambles on about aliens and rosicrucians and reiki and how to “harness” your “enegry” and you have to wonder if any of it is serious. I’ll also note that I’ve seen him maybe do five minutes worth of work in six years! So, one day, he was spinning an absurdly convoluted yarn about astral projection and CIA technologies and alchemy; and, at the end of this epic, he asked:
Now, do you have any questions?
Being a wiseacre, I asked the classic one about the meaning of life. “Really?” he responded, paused and said:
Rufus, this entire world is a playground and you were only put here to play every game you can, find the one that gives you the most happiness, and keep playing that game forever.
Is it the meaning of life? I don’t know, but it’s close enough.
So, what are YOU pondering, reading, watching, creating, or playing this weekend?