Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Not-Forgotten not quite Bestseller: Warlock, by Jim Harrison

Warlock, by Jim Harrison

a review by Rich Horton

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was a major American novelist (and, famously, "novellist") and poet. He was originally from Michigan, and much of his fiction was set in rural Michigan and in other rural spaces, such as Montana and Nebraska. He may still be best known for his novella "Legends of the Fall", made into a well-received movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. His best known novel might be Dalva.

I've felt for a long time that Harrison is a writer I would enjoy, but for whatever reason I had never got around to reading any of his novels or novellas. I did read a collection of his poems (Harrison considered himself primarily a poet). After his death I felt an even stronger urge -- and, hey, it only took me two years to finally read one of his novels. I chose Warlock for the brilliant reason that it was the book of his I already had on my shelves.

That said, I think I made a pretty good choice. Warlock is a comic novel, and a crime novel (while at the same time spoofing crime novels). I have an affinity for both forms. It's set mostly near Traverse City, Michigan -- not a location I'm intimately familiar with, but an area I know slightly, due to my mother being from Michigan, and her father being from the Upper Peninsula, which led to vacations in the state, including trips to the UP, and trips to the northern part of the lower peninsula. Which just means -- I felt sympatico with the setting.

Warlock is a name the main character, Johnny Lundgren, was bestowed on his induction into the Webelos. He's now a bit over 40, and unemployed after losing his job as an executive for a charitable foundation. He's married (second time) to a beautiful nurse named Diana, and they have a pretty active sex life which is recorded in some detail in the book. In his unemployment he is trying to become a good cook, with middling success, but other than that he's definitely drifting -- drinking too much, putting on weight, showing plenty of signs of depression. His father is a cop, and they get along pretty well, though there's a hint that Warlock resents the older man discouraging him from a career as a painter.

Johnny's somewhat less than energetic job search isn't going very well, partly because of his unwillingness to play nice with potential bosses he finds too stupid. He makes a vow to change his life -- four rules: Eat Sparingly, Avoid Adultery (yes, despite his apparent sincere love for Diana, their active sex life, and his confidence she won't stray, he does fool around a bit with some local women), Do Your Best in Everything, and Get in First Rate Shape. But none of these resolutions are going all that well, when suddenly he gets a curious and interesting job offer from a rich but rather eccentric local inventor. It seems this man, Dr. Rabun, is convinced he's being cheated, in various investments, and especially by his estranged wife and son. He wants Johnny to "troubleshoot" -- to check his books, and to investigate any suspicious activity.

This begins with a trip to the Upper Peninsula and a forest Rabun owns (for logging). Warlock more or less stumbles into the criminals stealing from his boss, and, while fleeing from them, also manages to stumble into an affair with a woman who claims to be a "Chippewa Indian" but turns out to be a Detroit schoolteacher of Armenian descent. Filled with a combination of guilt about the adultery, fear for his life, and excitement over a successful mission, he returns home.

Over the next few months he enjoys a certain amount of financial success, and investigates a bit more for Rabun, while Diana applies for a scholarship to med school. Rabun's interests in Florida turn a bit sour -- a health club he owns is sued by a woman who claims to have been severely injured when a cable snapped, and his wife is causing more problems, while his gay son is importuning him for money to open a bar in the Keys. So Warlock heads to Florida, and the climax of the novel, which involves his realization that (as the reader has surely realized) Rabun is even weirder and less trustworthy than he seems, and for that matter Warlock's home life needs a bit of re-examination as well. All this mixed in with sex with a paralyzed woman, and being literally thrown to the sharks, an encounter with a mobster, and an ill-advised disguise to mix in with his idea of the average gay bar clientele.

This is really a pretty funny novel throughout. It spoofs many of the conventions of a certain sort of private detective fiction, while taking them, and in particular Warlock's life, seriously enough to avoid silliness and dishonesty. So among the weirdness and comedy, we get a believable examination of Johnny Lundgren's character, and his reaction to very real depression. Harrison treats all of his characters with a degree of respect, and with affection and undertanding. And his prose is strong -- clear, free of cliche, rhythmically interesting. I recommend it.


  1. I'm a big fan of Harrison(i'm also from Michigan). If you are looking for funny Harrison check out his novellas about Brown Dog. Collected in a book of the same name.

  2. I've barely read Harrison as well, and should read some more...but is it made explicit in the novel why one can't be both "Indian" (native? Indian subcontinent?) and a schoolteacher simultaneously? Thanks for the pointer.

    1. You could be, of course -- and I meant American Indian, should have clarified that. But the character, it is made clear, is pretending to be Native, instead she's of Armenian descent.

      She introduces herself as a "Chippewa Indian", that's why I used the word.

  3. I have stayed away from his books because he is a NOVELIST. This does sound interesting.