Dalva by Jim Harrison (1988. Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0-671-74067-2

“Jim Harrison’s Dalva is the story of a remarkable modern woman’s search for her son…”

That’s the cover blurb that grabbed my attention and compelled me to buy this novel at Books on Broadway,  a lovely little bookstore in downtown Williston, ND. I’ve read Harrison before and both loved and been less than excited about his work (Legends of the Fall-big thumbs’ up; True North-not so much) but because the recently departed author hailed from two places I thoroughly love, UP Michigan and Montana, I figured this book, given the impressive blurbs, would make for an interesting and engaging summer read. I got the interesting. Engaging? That fell by the wayside as I plowed through Harrison’s prose. Here’s why.

I applaud any male author’s willingness to tackle the voice of a woman in the first person in fiction. There are so many opportunities to stumble and fall, to marginalize the character by inserting male sexuality, male language, and male foibles into the writing, that, well, when an author of  Harrison’s stature makes the attempt, takes such a risk, I stand up and take notice. Having tackled this quirky task myself (Esther’s Race), I have sympathy for males writing in the female voice and vice versa. And, for the most part, Harrison handles the difficulties of putting on a woman’s skin, getting into the female mind, with adroitness. That makes the first part of the tale, told in Dalva’s voice, very readable and believable. Sure, the sexuality of the main character seems so feckless and free and without thought of consequence, some readers might argue that Harrison is casting male sexuality onto the female persona. But making that assumption or assertion, I think, misses that there are indeed intrepidly sexual females in the world, women whose carnal appetites equal those of men. So the fact that Dalva has a child early on out-of-wedlock and continues on a path that includes trysts and affairs and nary a serious relationship, well, that’s the free spirit of the character and it’s solidly valid. So it’s not Dalva’s lust or affection or love of flesh that stands out as an issue for me. Rather, it is the fact that, having established a strong, interesting woman as his lead actor, Harrison suddenly changes up the game and gives us an insipidly weak and uninteresting male character, Michael, a sniveling, milquetoast thirty-something (a decade younger than his sometime lover, Dalva, which women readers will likely applaud!) to move the story forward. The author compounds this unacceptable slight-of-hand, this bait and switch, by giving Michael center stage for the second part of the story. Even though part 1, featuring Dalva, and part 2, featuring Michael, are equal in length, I found the second portion of the tale far more labored and uninteresting. My take. Accept it or reject it as you like.

Dalva reappears for the concluding section of the book, “Going Home” and the lives of the two main characters weave back and forth, with other, supporting actors making appearances to enhance the plot. But the narrative, as structured throughout the volume, presents challenges. What do I mean? First, the blurb proclaiming that this is a story about a mother finding her son, a child she gave away as an infant, is pure fallacy. Oh, sure, the birthing and giving up and lamenting are all there on the page. But that segment of the story is so defuse, so subtle that proclaiming, as the blurbist did, that the adoption and search scenario is a main theme of the book is a crock. There’s little significance of the “lost child” narrative to the remainder of the book’s story arc. It simply failed to connect, at least with me. Additionally, the unchaptered structure of the novel, while not anywhere as difficult as reading Joyce, is a bit off putting. And finally, there is this. The ending so confused me, well, I won’t spoil it for you if you decide to wade into this book, but I’m still scratching my head as to how and why it occurred.

Harrison is an American icon. Poet, essayist, novelist, and teacher, Jim Harrison deserves, on the strength of his other work, to be recognized as an American treasure. But despite the proclamations on the jacket of this book, I would not place Dalva at the top of the list of Jim Harrison works that require reading.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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