Thoughts: Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison

I’ve definitely seen the film of this, a long time ago, and all I can remember is an expansive film score and a lot of gorgeous scenery, so I wasn’t sure what to expect of the book. All I really remember of the film is bigness, so it was a surprise to find that the book is in fact a novella, collected here in a volume with two other novellas.

The contrast between the wide spaces of the film and the diminutive story size didn’t grow any less while I was reading, because short though each story is, Harrison writes huge. Reading a novella is like living a life. It’s not exactly Hemingway-spare (I’m quite interested by the influence of Hemingway now that I’ve actually looked at some of his work, so expect to see more of my going on about him in future), but a lot more poetic, and if Hemingway is icebergs hiding jagged depths of meaning, then Harrison is horizontal space, few lines and miles and miles visible from where you stand.

The stories contained their share of violence and unpleasantness, which though unflinching never felt unnecessary, an important feature for me, who has grown squeamish in her old age. The gender politics felt pretty outdated though – in the first novella, the protagonist finds himself in trouble for having an affair with a crimelord’s wife, so he and the crimelord play the vengeance game with each other for a while, then the woman dies at the end and the men sort of… bond. Or come to an understanding. And as much as I love a grand revenge story and I enjoyed the character arcs of both men (especially the crimelord, who knows exactly where he stands in the narrative) it was hard to overlook this unfortunate woman problem. She wasn’t exactly a sexy lamp, but she was pretty damn close.

The middle story, about a man who withdraws from the world in a kind of midlife crisis, was better for that, but not perfect. There are at least more female characters and they have personalities, even if those personalities are just “the daughter he can’t understand”. It just falls into that inexplicable trope of the stoic middle-aged man who’s irresistible to every woman in the story, whose only question is whether or not to sleep with any given woman at any given time, as she will be invariably available. I don’t know why this is a thing and I wish it would stop. But he doesn’t spend most of his time in amorous entwines, and when he wasn’t I followed his journey eagerly. I had no idea where he would end up and I enjoyed watching him get there, watching him become someone he would never have thought himself capable of becoming.

Legends of the Fall itself is the last and most famous story, and probably the best. (Still not sure where the title comes from, though. Quote? Reference to Satan? Some kind of landscape? Shrug!) It’s the story of a family, and that’s really the only way to describe it. Harrison’s stories don’t seem to be all about the grand metaphors or intricate analogies, or at least if they are I didn’t really notice. They’re stories of lives, things that happen for no reason, decisions and consequences and bad luck and good luck. It’s the story of three brothers, and Tristan, the middle brother (whose name meaning ‘sadness’ is probably not an accident on the author’s part) is our protagonist if not necessarily our hero, and his hard-but-good life provides the backbone of the story. He’s one of the best drawn characters, full of shadows and light: generous, cruel, thoughtless, wild, brave, flawed but trying. He deserves some of what happens to him but not all of it, like the rest of us.

I know I should mention something about race here because it would be disingenuous not to. Harrison’s novellas feature Native American and Mexican characters (secondary and side characters, never main), but I’m afraid I don’t know enough to say anything helpful. Like many non-Americans, I know a decent amount of African-American discourse through the internet (it almost drowns out all other Anglophone race discourse) but I don’t have the same knowledge of Hispanic/Latin American and Native American issues. I don’t know enough to say what’s accurate and what’s caricature. With that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, I will say that I do suspect Harrison of straying into stereotype (especially of the Magical Other variety) but he does also give some of hit non-white characters personalities of their own. The dynamic between One Stab and the Ludlow family feels quite “real”, which isn’t to say it’s true to life, just convincingly written.

I did enjoy all three stories, despite my reservations about the race thing and the gender politics, and if you aren’t so bothered by that kind of thing or can overlook it, then Harrison’s lovely prose is well worth it.

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