Why God forgot

“The danger of civilization,” notes Jim Harrison in the very first line of The Beast God Forgot to Invent, “is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” It’s an observation that serves well as both an introduction to Harrison’s sharp-edged wit and as a definition of what’s at stake in his latest work of fiction.

In each of the three novellas that make up this book, Harrison confronts the notion of civilization and how it tends to pull us away from living a simpler, more deeply felt life. But, as you may have gathered from the rambunctious opening line, this is no scholarly treatise on the ills of modern life. As always, Harrison is a joy to read, barreling through the stories and applying his trademark digressions and comic insight to topics ranging from martinis to Hawaiian shirts. Though he deals with weighty topics, Harrison is at heart a satirist, and he may well be one of the funniest writers of “serious” fiction ever.

The most striking of the three tales rendered here is the title piece, in which an aging, overly intellectual rare book dealer, Norman Arnz, writes to the local coroner to try to explain the life and recent death of a younger friend, Joe Lacort. Several months before his mysterious death, Lacort had suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to remember the past or envision the future. The accident “altered his sense of time, destroyed the sense of time necessary to conduct a civilization” and turned him into a kind of missing link between man and beast. He lives an exuberant, untamed life more like that of a bear than of most men, sleeping in the Upper Michigan woods, catching fish with his bare hands and rutting with whatever willing females he encounters along the way.

Lacort becomes the envy of his older friend, who lusts after Lacort’s girlfriends, envies his freedom and naïve sense of wonder about things like waterfalls and crows as he bemoans his own advancing age. “Right now I feel that my human tank is drained and I am the sediment, the scum on the bottom, the excrescence of my own years,” says Arnz in a fit of geezer pique brought on by the visit of one of Lacort’s young lovelies.

All of this makes for an amusing ride, as Lacort gets lost, runs afoul of the Department of Fish and Game, beats up a gang of redneck hunters and generally runs good-naturedly amok as his friends and caretakers struggle to keep up. But the story ultimately takes on a tragic bent as Arnz comes to terms with Lacort’s death—a probable suicide—and gradually realizes that his friend’s condition meant he “really couldn’t belong in this world. He might have had a chance fifty years earlier, or further back in time.” For Arnz, it’s part of a process that brings his own life back into focus; for Harrison, it’s a masterful demonstration of his range as writer, as the comic novella reaches a poignant, lyrical end.

The other two stories explore similar themes. “Westward, Ho"—the funniest of this very funny set—finds a Michigan Indian dispatching screenwriters, starlets and movie moguls in Los Angeles as he strives to recover a stolen bear skin. “I Forgot to Go to Spain” follows a man who has truly pissed his life away on nonsense—he’s spent his best years cranking out celebrity memoirs called “bioprobes” rather than pursuing the more serious writing he had intended—until a visit to a woman he was married to for nine days in his wild youth leads him to remember what is really important to him.

Through it all, the writing shines. As has long been clear to fans of Sundog and Legends of the Fall, Harrison’s unique prose is truly a gift to be savored. Now, The Beast God Forgot to Invent lends another title to his growing list of outstanding works.