The Legend of Brown Dog: A Great American Hero Gets His Due
The prevailing notion of heroism is one for melodramatics and epic poets. There are comic book crime fighters who can fly with the birds, smash through walls of concrete, or transform the weather from sunny to stormy. There are the triumphant champions of professional sports, who with their superior physicality, dazzle audiences with seemingly superhuman feats of strength, speed, and agility. Then, there are the real life legends of justice, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, who risk life and limb to further the fight for human freedom.
Among the giants of fantasy, athleticism, and history, is there any room for the every day hero? A man whose glories are small and private, and because of their intimate impact, gain proximity to the average life and become applicable to the ordinary struggle?
The possibility of populist heroism is one of the many delightful ideas with which readers must contend when learning of the picaresque travels and battles of Brown Dog – the reoccurring character of one of America’s finest writers – Jim Harrison.
Harrison first introduced the world to the Native American inhabitant of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1990. The libidinous trickster who lives “happily in the bottom ten percent”, and makes a living as a salvager, pulp cutter, and snow shoveler, was the subject of a novella bearing his name. He reminisces about his childhood spent with his grandfather, who raised him in the unexplained absence of his parents, both of whom he never met, and remembers his failure as a Moody Institute Bible student in Chicago. He spent the money his church congregation donated for living expenses in the Windy City on a biracial prostitute he met in a diner. The little money that remained in his pocket after several nights of bodily salvation went toward a T-Bone steak at the same diner where he met his temptress.
Brown Dog suffers from guilt for deceiving the kindhearted people who tried to help him, but he feels no remorse for the crimes that he commits during the course of his life – stealing the body of an Indian Chief he believes was his father, in the hopes that he can give him a proper burial, and setting fire to the equipment and camping grounds of University of Michigan anthropology students preparing to excavate a Native American cemetery.
The graduate students looking to hit the academic jackpot only knew the location of the burial grounds, however, because Brown Dog led one of them there after she seduced him with her “top five fanny.”
In the six Brown Dog novellas – all now collected in a single book, Brown Dog – the hapless hero of the every day, existential struggle against boredom, petty oppressions of faceless institutions, and the deadening of the senses – wins and loses, succeeds and fails, and soars and crashes, because of his unquenchable lust for life, and the master beating loud enough inside his breast to drown out the rational voices of risk management, pragmatism, or financial consideration.
Brown Dog has a code of ethics that separates him from the convention of his culture, and the partisan frivolity of politics. His erectile enthusiasm for life points him in the direction of right and wrong, neither of which are tangible or easily identifiable. He’ll burn down a university’s research equipment to preserve the spiritual sanctity of an Indian cemetery. He will travel all the way to Los Angeles, wearing the hand-me-down clothes of a janitor, to retrieve his stolen bear skin rug from a con artist documentary filmmaker, and even though he is broke and beaten down, he will summon all of his limited and depleted powers to protect the weak. He adopts a young girl with fetal alcohol syndrome, and upon learning that the state of Michigan is ordering her institutionalized, he drives past the mental health residential facility where she will forcibly stay. He sees that it has no flowers and little landscape, and immediately decides to smuggle her into Canada.
Children bring out the softest side of Brown Dog. Early in the series, he recalls rising up the ranks of an amateur boxing league until one of his knocked out opponent’s sons started crying. He quit on the spot.
Brown Dog’s code is quietly heroic – defense of the young and innocent, honoring his spiritual sense of justice, and always respecting his greatest “church and home” – the natural world – but it is also vulnerable to the vices, which double as virtues, of Brown Dog’s full throated, open armed embrace of all the pleasures life has to offer.
As America adopts the asceticism of calorie counting, trans fat bans, smoking prohibitions, low blood-alcohol limits, condoms, and jogging, it is encouraging and empowering to read of a hero who not only indulges, but waxes poetically, in the joys of whiskey, cigarettes, red meat, and above all else, overweight women. Out of fear of getting a “bone splinter”, he avoids sex with skinny women, but the proud boozer, overeater, and fornicator will go to absurd lengths to satisfy the imperative of what he often calls his “noodle.”
Throughout the six novellas, Brown Dog falls in love and/or lust with college students, a lesbian social worker assigned to his case, waitresses, dentists, and an assortment of Michigan women who spend their leisurely hours drinking schnapps and eating fried food in taverns and bowling alleys. These affairs result in fights with angry boyfriends, legal trouble, broken hearts, sore muscles, a daughter, and most of all, the nourishment of Brown Dog’s beleaguered spirit. The former Bible student’s religious beliefs are that of a conflicted spiritualism and a vague mysticism, but it is clear that in his approach to the art of living, he believes in nothing so firmly as the supremacy of the senses. When it comes to women, he actualizes the lyrics of Bob Seger – who like both Brown Dog and Jim Harrison – is from Michigan: “Sometimes at night / I see their faces / I feel the traces they left on my soul / Those are the memories that make me a wealthy soul.”
Brown Dog admits to having the worst head of hair he has ever seen, and years of a high calorie, beastly diet have left him with the physique of a Detroit Lions offensive lineman. He spends most winters living in a deer hunting cabin, and doesn’t even have a social security number. Women find him not only charming, but seductive, because, as one tells him, he is “unafraid to love women unironically.”
Although Brown Dog’s code of ethics is important, and its enforcement is what provides the plot in these beautiful novellas, any attempt to systematize the character into philosophy or politics is futile and foolish. Brown Dog is a robust, ribald, and irreverent tribute to the idea and ideal of maximum life, and if Brown Dog is a hero for our times, he is a heroic warrior against the inescapable dullness of American life.
There is no room in Brown Dog’s life for smart phone addiction, partisan politics, yogurt, gyms, social media, or dating through a computer screen. He is a bird watcher, a dog lover, and a man whose heart is too large for his country and his own good.
Jim Harrison once said that he reads “more for strength than for pleasure.” Even if Brown Dog’s tales offer plenty of amusement, they also offer an applicable model for living with aggression in pursuit of pleasure, love, and happiness. More than a reckless hedonist, Brown Dog – as made clear by his sensitivity to animals, children, and friends – is a hero of compassion.
Any American in desperate need of rescue from long commutes, cable news, shop talk from a cubicle, dreary suburban sprawl, and the contrived sexuality of predictable pop culture, would do well to sit down with Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog, and meet a new friend who will graciously give him a tour of a wonderfully debauched and always inspired life of energy, mystery, and avidity.
Jim Harrison has written better books. His early novels – Wolf, Farmer, and A Good Day to Die, along with Dalva and True North, belong on any list of American literature classics. He is often more poetic, more moving, and more brilliant, but he is never more energetic than he is in the Brown Dog series.
Harrison once said, “You must follow the truth of your imagination and the affections of your heart. Otherwise, you will feel badly.” Brown Dog, more than any other Harrison creation, is a man who lives according to that principle, and a man who demonstrates its hard fought and hard won wisdom.