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Redeeming the past, and preparing for death

Returning to Earth
By Jim Harrison
Grove, 280 pp., $24

"How can death be bad when it's happened to every single living creature and plant since the beginning of the earth?" several characters ask in Jim Harrison's contemplative new novel, which revolves around the premature death from ALS of a great big bear of a man.

"Returning to Earth" -- also the title of one of Harrison's poetry collections -- poses the big, searching questions about life and death that we've come to expect from this robust, vibrant author. But there's nothing abstract or abstruse about Harrison's earthy approach to these issues.

His fiction, fundamentally life-affirming , is rooted in a deep connection with nature and infused with a respect for Native American culture. He posits an intriguingly receptive attitude toward mortality in a society that largely finds death aberrant and unfathomable -- what his protagonist's widow calls "the most brutal thing we humans are forced to accept."

Harrison's 14th book of fiction is about loss, but also about honoring what's lost and redeeming the past. Two of its four narrators, the independently wealthy middle-aged offspring of a malevolent white man, strive to atone for their alcoholic father's infractions and their ancestors' "economic predation" of the land and its people.

"How do we manage to live with what we know?" David Burkett asks himself repeatedly, considering not just the inevitability of death but his father's and his race's history of abuse. And then he adds, "How do we live with what we don't know?"

The person literally "returning to earth" at the center of Harrison's novel is 45-year - old Donald, a Chippewa-Finnish cement contractor. He's been married to Cynthia, the daughter of his father's evil boss, since they were both in their teens. It's an uncommonly happy union, mostly spent in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Until diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, Donald was "the most purely physical person" his wife, a schoolteacher, had ever known.

He has spent so much time in the woods hunting, camping, hiking, and fishing, they have become part of his "body and soul." Donald's calm, naturalist's view of mortality is entirely in character, as is his desire to die with dignity, on his own terms.

As Donald's health deteriorates, Cynthia helps him record his family history for their two grown children. The adept interior monologue that worked so effectively in the title novella of Harrison's previous book, "The Summer He Didn't Die," is here replaced with four rambling first -person narratives whose voices are not always sufficiently distinct.

In a conversational stream of run-on sentences, Donald tells about his grandfather Clarence, son of a Chippewa-Anishinabe mother and an Icelandic white immigrant. After his mother's death, 13-year-old Clarence walked east from Minnesota toward the forests of the Upper Peninsula. Working on farms and raising draft horses along the way, he reached his destination 35 years later, in 1906. With his mixed-blood French-Canadian wife, a former prostitute, he had one son, Donald's father , Clarence.

When Donald was 10, his mother was institutionalized with schizophrenia and he was sent to live with his father's pureblood cousin. Flower introduced him to the woods and to Chippewa culture.

In the year after her father's death, Donald's daughter , Clare , seeks comfort from this surrogate grandmother. Flower initiates Clare into her father's Anishnabeg religion, about which he never spoke and we learn very little. Both women become convinced that Donald's spirit is walking the ghost road as a bear. Clare is loath to let him go, something she must do if he is to move on to the other world.

Harrison is one of few American writers equally at home writing about backwoods , mixed-race construction workers and wealthy university intellectuals. What stratifies his characters is not so much socio economic, political , or racial distinctions as education.

Donald is the least educated but also the least troubled and most grounded of the four narrators. Speaking for the record, he reminds his family that "the evil men do lives after them." Cynthia's father shattered multiple lives when he raped and impregnated the 12-year-old Mexican daughter of one of his workmen. It's a violation that continues to haunt his family, echoing the larger violations against Native Americans.

Although set in the mosquitoed wilds of the Upper Peninsula, Donald and Cynthia's family saga bears strong traces of Southern classics by William Faulkner and Walker Percy. Faulkner, always a strong influence on Harrison, is evoked explicitly by Donald's step nephew K (short for Kenneth), who narrates the second part of the novel: "Donald's story didn't need much embellishment because it had actual content. It was what William Faulkner called 'the raw meat on the floor.' " Raw, and also lean; there's little fat here.

K returns to Marquette from his studies in Ann Arbor to help orchestrate Donald's stunningly affecting death scene. He also rekindles his relationship with his step cousin Clare. Her depression and the two cousins' strong connection with movies and each other evoke Percy's masterpiece of 20-something alienation, "The Moviegoer."

In "Returning to Earth," Donald's survivors strive to find meaning in their lives. But newly widowed Cynthia, especially, must first cope with the "incalculable rudeness" of death. "What's an appropriate response to death?" she asks.

"You keep on truckin', " a sage friend replies.

Down-to-earth Donald put it better. "You can remember me but let me go," he told his wife.

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for a variety of newspapers .