by Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison writes like a tough guy with a soft heart. His novels and short stories are about men and women living, as best they can, by antiquated codes of honor they often must adapt to modern life. In Harrison's better works, including A Good Day to Die, Legends of the Fall and Dalva, he combines rigorous prose and a romantic streak. When he misses, he can come across like a winner in a bad-Hemingway contest.

Both Harrisons are on display in this book, which contains three extended short stories. Each depicts people hoping to come to terms with, and then move beyond, the past. Brown Dog is a raucous, funny and, in the end, moving tale of a ne'er-do-well in Michigan who tries to make his fortune by selling the frozen corpse of an Indian he finds in Lake Superior. Sunset Limited is about a group of ex-college radicals trying to save a jailed buddy in Mexico. The title story is about a middle-aged woman who leaves her longtime husband.

Sunset is the real problem. It reads like a screenplay, or rather, like the byproduct of Harrison's taking one too many meetings with Hollywood story executives (maybe in connection with Revenge, the turkey with Kevin Costner which was based on a Harrison novella in Legends of the Fall). One character, Patty, is even a studio executive.

When Harrison has her visit a pal at Le Pare, a real-life Los Angeles hotel, he seems to be straining to get the details right. "Patty knew the hotel, as she tended to put writers and young directors there who were either intimidated or bored by the grander establishments, and disliked the cruddy but pretentious nonchalance of the Chateau Marmont," he writes, in what seems embarrassingly like a modern-day version of Hemingway's preachments on why only certain cafes in Paris were worth visiting.

The pleasures of this book include some damn-near-perfect sentences summing up people or situations. In Brown Dog the protagonist says, "I've lived with a half-dozen ladies over the years and none of them left me over any unkindness but because there was no future in staying." In Fireflies—well-crafted if routine—the heroine realizes. "Over the long haul she couldn't have endured [her husband] Donald without her books, but now the idea of the books without Donald seemed rather nice."

Even if, this time out, the stories don't always measure up to the sentences, Harrison is still very much a contender, (Houghton Mifflin/Sevmour Lawrence, $19.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • David Hiltbrand.