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Novellas with untamed plots but wondrous prose

The Summer He Didn’t Die, By Jim Harrison, Atlantic Monthly, 277 pp., $24

Jim Harrison, the prolific author of ''Legends of the Fall," ''Wolf," and a host of other novellas and novels as well as screenplays and poetry collections, is a man at home in the natural world. Northern Michigan and Montana -- the terrains that feature so prominently in his work -- are also the locales in which he's lived most of his life. And the hunting, fishing, and tracking that engage many of his characters are as organic and essential to Harrison himself as breathing.

But the obvious comparisons with Ernest Hemingway stop there. Harrison's language is as textured as Hemingway's was terse, and to read his newest novella collection, ''The Summer He Didn't Die," is to be immersed not in action, not in relationships, but in sensation. That rich, almost riotous sensuality drives all that's right about this book, and when it's absent, the lack of basic narrative structure -- plot, conflict, resolution -- becomes painfully apparent.

The title story, which opens the book, is simply wonderful. Brown Dog (a.k.a. B.D.), a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a recurring character in Harrison's works, ekes out a living by catching fish and sawing trees. He is a man who is ''greatly drawn to women with none of the hesitancy of his more modern counterparts who tiptoed in and out of women's lives wearing blindfolds, nose plugs, ear plugs, and fluttering ironic hearts." The women drawing him in this tale are Belinda, a large, sexually voracious, and highly competent dentist, and Gretchen, the lesbian social worker whose goodness is rewarded with B.D.'s fruitless but unshakable admiration and lust.

But the most important female in B.D.'s life is his stepdaughter Berry, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome who cannot read, write, or even speak but can roam the woods fearlessly and sing like the birds around her. Harrison shows us B.D.'s domestication as he cares for this child and her brother, with humor, poignancy, and not a trace of treacle. So when B.D. sneaks into Canada with Berry to prevent the state from placing her in an institution and protect her wildness, it feels less like a climax and more like just another passage in lives in which stability is not only unknown but undesirable. Unfortunately, it's also the last incident in this novella, which doesn't end so much as abruptly stop.

''Republican Wives" is an account of three women, friends since college. They come together in Merida, Mexico, where one of them has fled after an ineffectual attempt to kill Daryl, the loutish lover they have shared over the years. Martha -- the would-be murderess -- and her two friends each get a chapter in which to tell their own story. It's a good read -- the writing has moments of savage humor and restrained pathos -- but ultimately, the voices are indistinct and the novella's form is as amorphous as the ambitions of its protagonists.

In ''Tracking," Harrison follows his own footsteps through geography, ideas, and time. It's a musing, autobiographical piece that epitomizes all that is both masterful and flawed in this collection. The relentlessly tight focus on the author's inner life becomes tiresome in the absence of even a cursory attempt to explore the lives or psyches of the people around him. But oh, the writing! Harrison's senses are so sharp and his phrases so faithful to what he perceives that all is forgiven.

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