The Woman Lit by Fireflies
In the age of the screenplay, the discerning reader learns to cast a wary eye upon the novella. Too long to appear in a magazine and too short to be a book, its 90 or so pages can be difficult for a writer to place. For a two-hour feature film, however, the novella turns out to be just about right. Judging by The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Jim Harrison’s trio of unrelated novellas, the temptations of the screenplay — familiar situations and characters, brisk dialogue, dramatic shortcuts, and violent or sentimental endings — can seduce even the most accomplished writer working at this length. For admirers of Harrison, whose Legends of the Fall, an earlier collection of novellas, earned well-deserved acclaim, the seduction is especially disappointing.
Take, for example, ”Sunset Limited,” the most obviously cinematic of the three. Thematically speaking, it resembles an amalgam of The Big Chill and The Professionals, the 1966 Western in which Robert Ryan, Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, and Woody Strode go south of the border to rescue a kidnapped Claudia Cardinale. Here a group of four ex-radicals from the legendary ’60s reunite to save their one-time leader, unjustly imprisoned in a Mexican jail.
With seven acts and six main characters crammed into 88 pages, ”Sunset Limited” borrows even the terse first-person plural voice of the screenplay: ”The daughter turns the key and for a few seconds we hear a snatch of ‘Brown-Eyed Women and Red Grenadine’ before the tape deck is clicked off and the heater comes on.”
As one might expect, the ex-radicals are now four very different people: a semireclusive rancher, a hotshot movie exec, a ”brilliant, albeit devious international lawyer,” and a reclusive wildlife researcher who lives alone with his coyotes. One flies airplanes, another knows guns and how to get around in the desert, another has State Department connections, and so forth. As long as Harrison is busy assembling the players there’s time for the kind of wit and precise observation for which his previous work has been justly praised. When the shooting starts, however, cinematic shorthand and cliches of every sort take over.
Though rather less predictable in form, the title story of the collection is also familiar in theme: sensitive, repressed suburban housewife ees money- mad stockbroker husband. Riding along Interstate 80 through Iowa in her husband’s Audi 5000, listening to the oaf replay a tiresome nancial lecture on the tape deck, 50-year-old Clare has an epiphany. ”Donald didn’t feel really good about making money unless others were losing theirs, which made it all, in her mind, a silly game to spend your life on rather than the grave process with which he was totally obsessed.”
So Clare leaves a note at a rest stop and flees into a cornfield, spending an uncomfortable but liberating night hidden at the edge of a thicket, getting very literally down to earth and reflecting on her life: ”She looked at a dirty hand and thought idly…that for the first time in her life she did not know where her next shower was coming from.”
Paradoxically, of the three novellas ”Brown Dog” turns out to be at once the most original and the least memorable. Narrated by a raunchy scoundrel who tells bogus barroom tales of his nonexistent Chippewa heritage to anthropology students for the purposes of seduction, it turns into a murky caper involving the perfectly preserved corpse of a long-dead Native American from the depths of Lake Superior, a stolen ice truck, and a short ton of heavy-handed symbolism. A hackneyed performance from a writer of genuine gifts. C