Life is Unbearably Vivid: An Essay on Sundog by Jim Harrison and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

sundogBY PAUL DOTY

In a 2016 New York Times Book Review interview Jim Harrison responded to a question about his favorite fictional heroes and villains with, “My original favorite fictional hero was Heathcliff in Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights.’”[1] In Heathcliff Bronte creates one of literature’s quintessential Byronic heroes, unique among Byronic heroes in that his mystery derives from his locale: he embodies the tumultuous remoteness of Wuthering Heights.  Thinking over the corpus of Jim Harrison stories, especially those stories set in wintery brooding Northern Michigan, place becomes persona in characters actively trying to lose themselves in their surroundings pursuing what Anthony Doerr characterized as “unencumbered-ness.”[2]  This unencumbered-ness invokes an aura of Heathcliff.  This essay will argue that Jim Harrison’s Sundog clearly has a relationship to Wuthering Heights, and while it is by no means a retelling of that story, a reading of Sundog through Wuthering Heights enables an exploration of locale and the charismatic hero.

Jumping out from the two books is the parallel in the narrative scaffolding.  In Wuthering Heights Mr. Lockwood is a first person narrator, who retells Nelly Dean’s account of Wuthering Heights, that itself relays accounts of events told in detail by the story’s characters.  In Sundog Jim Harrison is a first person narrator, there are interviews with Robert Corvus Strang, and the “verbatim” transcriptions of tapes the Narrator makes as he comes to grips with how Strang’s story intersects with the transition he needs to make to keep his life from coming unglued.  The different narrative modes and moods create a push and pull tension within both novels–moods that for Harrison create a structure for the Narrator to internalize Strang’s story, to let the story under his skin, and for Bronte a space for the competing scenes of passion and/or ferocity.

Writing of a lack of an “authoritative” narrator in Wuthering Heights Emily Rena-Dozier argued “the novel’s incoherence is attributable to the proliferation of storytellers within a central frame, storytellers who are by and large completely unsympathetic to, and often disapproving of, the stories they tell.”[3] The Nelly Dean narrative through Lockwood details the great gasping emotion of Wuthering Heights often in deadpan, as here in Chapter Fifteen where Catherine and Heathcliff confront each other over who is more thoroughly tormented by love:

Heathcliff had knelt on one knee to embrace her; he attempted to rise but she seized his hair, and kept him down.

“I wish I could hold you,” she continued, bitterly, “till we were both dead!  I shouldn’t care what you suffered.  I care nothing for your sufferings.  Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! Will you forget me—will you be happy when I’m in the earth?  Will you say, twenty years hence, “That’s the grave of Catherine Earnshaw. I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past.”[4]

The hair pulling and invocations of suffering and death transmitted so directly by Lockwood and Dean create the far end of the world quality in this scene and other similar encounters.  Proclamations of love coupled with oath-delivered anticipation of death are the other-worldliness of Wuthering Heights, through the resonance in the layers of narrators, makes the characters larger and smaller by exaggeration kept in a sharply focused disdain (as if saying, this can only happen here). Likewise, the overlap of the three running narratives in Sundog gives Jim Harrison a mechanism into which he can pour everything his narrator has to gain and lose; it’s where his fallibility can be unwound and rethreaded.  While heading to Northern Michigan with an idea of who Strang is and why he needs to talk to “ someone who actually does something,”[5] the Jim Harrison narrator detours, “I swerved off the Interstate south of Macon and followed the dirt road to Home Folks Barbeque, indisputably the best barbeque shack in the United States. Of course, I had been planning the move subconsciously for an entire day.”[6]  Gluttony is on display again not long after his arrival in the Upper Peninsula where he reflects on a large whitefish lunch, “An actor once told me that only in the Midwest is overeating still considered an act of heroism.”[7] Like many of the middle-aged characters in Harrison’s fiction who are hot footing it toward redemption, appetite defines and complicates the hero of the story, and in Sundog the gout-burdened present is, to return to the scaffolding metaphor, what the Narrator knows he needs to climb down from.  Between these confessions, a slip out of his self-absorption into a confused déjà vu offering him clarity about where he could be:

Now I was driving straight into half a red ball that was the sun, immense crows swooped back and forth across the road looking for carcasses to pick…Now the ravens, the puddle ducks in the swamp, the geese wheeling to land in the distance, the dead raccoon and the setting sun, the road itself, cut clumsily but forcibly through the thirty intervening years, leaving them all badly lit photos.  There was then, and there was now.[8]

The summer sunset is on the cusp crow and raven epiphany, but not there yet—in his bones the Narrator knows the possibility being back in the Upper Peninsula holds for him, but he needs his Heathcliff, Robert Corvus Strang, to articulate it, or, back to the description of the sunset, to make it now.

Heathcliff burns at the center of his story, radiating an energy that animates but cannot define the man.  Lockwood’s initial appraisal of Heathcliff is: “He’ll love and hate, equally and under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved and hated again.”[9]  In his study of Wuthering Heights Frank Kermode catalogs Heathcliff’s contradictions in noting his problematic individuality, “He stands also between a past and a future,”[10] he “fluctuates between poverty and riches; also between virility and impotence.”[11] This fluctuation is Heathcliff’s environmental heat: not native to the setting he pulls time into place encapsulated in the haunting last line of the book, “listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine the unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” [12] The voice is Lockwood’s, and the argument of the whisper he leaves readers with is the immersion of all that has been Wuthering Heights into the earth.

In a climactic scene in Chapter Twenty Nine, the earth itself shoveled as Linton’s grave is dug and Heathcliff grapples with his visions of Cathy, “No! She has disturbed me night and day, though eighteen years—incessantly…till yesternight, and yesternight, I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, and my heart stopped, and my cheek frozen against hers.”[13]  When Nelly Dean asks whether Heathcliff had dreamt if Cathy had “dissolved into the earth,” he responds, “Of dissolving with her, and being more happy still!”[14]  Later in the scene after he describes scraping Cathy’s coffin the day she was buried in the cold, “I felt that Cathy was there, not under me, but on the earth.”[15] The dissolve becomes a memorialization of the intense interior Byronic Romanticism described through the quasi-demonic description of locale.  Memorialization is a word taken from Joyce Carol Oates argument about Bronte’s “extreme identification” with Yorkshire:

It might be argued that all works of art whether “romantic” or “realistic” are in fact the products of an intense, interior romance: that of the artist for his or her subject.  Memorialization of the subject, and nearly always its precisely rendered setting, land-or city-or seascape, is the fuel that drives imaginative creation; it may be that much of writing springs from a hope of assuaging homesickness.”[16]

Heathcliff’s homesickness is not for Liverpool, it’s the agitation of standing exactly where he should be standing.  He is his own memorialization—all the vision percolates from Heathcliff’s volatility, his furious electricity that connects everything back to his embodiment of Wuthering Heights for as long as he is standing.  Without that diffuse volatility but every bit of his centrality, Robert Corvus Strang assumes a Heathcliff-like role in Sundog.

In The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in the Literature of the Heartland William Barillas notes, “Harrison emphasizes return rather than departure,”[17]  Jim Harrison narrator’s return to Northern Michigan reflects Strang’s return to his native Northern Michigan.  The latter’s return is to recover from a fall over a colossal dam in South America, complicated by hallucinogens given him by indigenous Venezuelans, to counter his petit mal epilepsy, which itself originated in a childhood Michigan thunderstorm, “A thunderstorm did the job…this immense white light and the oarlocks, my fishing reel, and the screws that held the old boat together, all begin to glow. I was pitched backward out of the boat and only remember crouching on the bottom of the lake near the roots and lily pads…that’s how I got my seizures.“[18]  This working thunderstorm very literally connects Strang to Northern Michigan.  Broken by his travels, he reassembles himself in childhood recollections, particularly those of his brother Karl.  A quintessential scene is Strang’s remembering “a hot summer day before Karl returned and Edith left my life forever”[19] where Harrison juxtaposes a drought-reduced shallow trout-choked stream, with Strang kissing his youthful love Edith, and then the two of them fleeing a Superior-borne thunderstorm (Edith’s white legs flashing under her cotton dress):

Don’t you wonder about these first affinities?  I’m sure nearly everyone in the world has had them, with all their frightening intensity, which comes from our vulnerability at that age. We ’love’ before we know how to protect ourselves, pure and simple.  The trout might have collected in that spring like that only once in my lifetime, and the storm on the way home allowed them to leave…Life is unbearably vivid, don’t you think?[20]

Vividness is what Strang recaptures.  The vividness Strang understands is what the Narrator comes to terms with as he sloughs off his sense of an overriding indecision.  Later in the book as the Narrator sets up Strang’s literal and spiritual return to Northern Michigan with the night swim wherein he leaves the book (and leaves this life of tears, apparently), the metaphor is immersion:

Strang’s story was immersed in love, work, and death; its lack of décor was made up for by the tired, aforementioned saws of wholeness, harmony, and even, at least for me, a modicum of radiance.  In short, the mystery of personality, of life itself.[21]

Strang belongs to the water and turmoil of where he grew up.   Life itself turns out to be abandonment to family in the moment when “fatigue would be sweet when you saw the light diffused upward in a bright haze downstream.”[22]

A sweet fatigue the Narrator has felt by discovering he may be family with Strang.  Strang’s older brother Karl is like a thunderstorm spilled across Northern Michigan, the Second World War, and then violence and prison.  The book’s climactic sequence comes at a prison in Marquette (complete with thunderstorm) where Karl recounts that their sister had become pregnant working at a summer camp at fourteen having fallen in love with a “college guy” whose name he found in a diary taken from bed springs.[23]  Violet went away, and Karl tracked who he believed the father to be to East Lansing but hand in hand with a small boy he couldn’t actualize revenge.  Hearing the story (recounted in the book in one of the taped transcriptions), the Narrator realizes he might be the boy Karl described:

I quickly computed that the timing was right, then dismissed it all as rather breath-taking nonsense. Who knows the actual lives of our parents…Strang’s arm was around my shoulder when I returned to Earth.[24]

Harrison leaves whether or not that is the case ambiguous, whether the Narrator is a blood relation to Strang is an end wisely left loose—this potential illustrates the uncertainty the Narrator faces, his farewell with Strang complete, his Northern Michigan circumnavigated.  The story is not one of hero worship, there is no masculine epigram to take way, rather the mystery of personality that could be an antidote for gout and the “nice enough”[25]  writing he was doing before he investigated Strang. Lockwood is a vessel—his purpose is to tell the story, but he fades with the quiet landscape at the end of the story.  As readers, our interest is with the “unquiet sleepers.”  In contrast, while Strang is Sundog’s Heathcliff, the apprehensive optimism at the end of the book has to do with a curiosity about the Jim Harrison narrator.  What he does with this vision of Strang is an open question; of his last meeting with Strang the Narrator recalls, “Strang embraced me, then held me at arm’s length and smiled. That’s all.  Not even an enigmatic smile, just a smile.”[26] One can’t help but absorb a mood of harsh spring renewal, Northern Michigan itself, by the finish of Sundog, in an unenigmatic smile.

This essay falls within boundaries of a lifetime of reading, and a relationship to both Jim Harrison and Emily Bronte tempered by long residence in near proximity to either side of the Great Lakes.  Doty is a Reference Librarian at St. Lawrence University. Canton New York has been his home for twenty years, close by the Thousand Islands and the easternmost edge of the Great Lakes, before which, for a few years, he partook of all things Lake Superior when he resided in Duluth, Minnesota.

 



[1]          “Jim Harrison.” New York Times Book Review. March 20 2016, BR 7.

[2]          Doerr, Anthony. “Tough Guise: Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog.” New York Times Book Review, Dec 13 2013,
Accessed: June 1, 2017.  http://nyti.ms./19C55km.

[3]                 Rena-Dozier, Emily. “Gothic Criticisms: Wuthering Heights and Nineteenth –Century Literary History.”
ELH 77,(2010): 757.

[4]                 Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights ed. William Sale Jr. (New York: WW Norton, 1963), 133.

[5]                 Harrison, Jim. Sundog (New York: Bantam Books, 1985),  xi…

[6]                 Ibid., 5-6.

[7]                 Ibid., 30.

[8]                 Ibid., 15.

[9]                 Bronte, 15.

[10]              Kermode, Frank. The Classic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 124.

[11]             Ibid, 123.

[12]             Bronte, 266.

[13]             Ibid., 228.

[14]             Ibid., 229.

[15]             Ibid., 229.

[16]               Oates, Joyce Carol. “Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.” In Uncensored: Views and (Re)Views,(New York: Ecco Press, 2005), 239.

[17]               Barillas, William. The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in the Literature of the Heartland. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006), 204.

[18]             Harrison, 48-49.

[19]             Ibid., 103

[20]         .Ibid., 107.

[21]         Ibid., 210.

[22]         .Ibid., 241.

[23]              Ibid., 206.

[24]             Ibid., 207.

[25]         Ibid., xi.

[26]         Ibid., 235.