Writing and telling in Harrison's latest

Dalva, by Jim Harrison. New York: Dutton/Seymour Lawrence. 324 pp. $18.95. On the surface, Jim Harrison's new novel, ``Dalva,'' is a collection of narratives written by a contemporary Western woman, her boyfriend (Michael), and her pioneering great-grandfather. Their stories sometimes enhance, sometimes interrupt each other, but each is told in a voice the reader quickly grows fond of. As different as the writers/speakers are, they have one thing in common: Writing offers them a quiet medium for confronting the boundaries of their lives.

The characters lead beautiful but chaotic lives, and despite their glib and bantering conversations, they have a hard time expressing themselves orally. As writers they come into sharper focus, and one sees other ways in which they and their accounts are closely related.

Dalva's book records her feelings as she searches for a child she gave up when she was 16. At age 45, she listens to the ticking of her biological clock and longs for both the boy and his father, Duane, who disappeared during her pregnancy. When she fell in love with him, Duane was just a farmhand - now she knows he was also her half brother. While looking for the ``others,'' Dalva is also looking for herself.

Her strength is gleaned from the Western plains - its certainty and mystery made manifest in her poise. In dealing with the misfortunes of her past she appeals to her sense of ``the now,'' and instead of losing herself to what she cannot change, she seeks to heal what she can. Her memoir often returns to the present.

She invites Michael to her mother's Nebraska farm, which sits in the shadow of the cultured patriarchs who earlier retreated there. During his stay at the farm, Michael confronts a host of real and remembered persons - ``ghosts'' of spirit and flesh. A professor on sabbatical, he is researching the journals of Dalva's great-grandfather, J.W. Northridge. Michael narrates the second book. His writing is curiously casual.

The issues that preoccupied Northridge in the journals, on the other hand, are not superficial; and they concern Dalva still: coming to terms with the strife between the white man and the American Indian; finding, and then quickly losing, love; identifying with the ``sacred landscape''; and leaving behind a written record.

Harrison has written novels, stories, and poems. His style is flexible and capable of great intimacy. Reading his new novel, ``Dalva,'' one feels that, like his characters, he is half writing and half telling it.

In the following passage, Dalva describes a ritual metamorphosis. It illustrates her method of facing issues - it comes into her mind when she is on the verge of writing about the transition from life to death. It also epitomizes Harrison's lyric prose:

Now I'm thinking of the legs of that Yaqui deer dancer at the Pascua in Tucson at Easter who danced three days and three nights so the Lord could arise again. Dancing seventy-two hours on legs with antlers on his head and a blindfold, at my age he was with legs made of cables and wires of flesh. What was that word in high-school physics? Specific density, I think. How much of him there was in one place so if he wasn't dancing he would fall into the earth. Dancing under the overpass of Route 10 between L.A. and Texas with a thousand trucks per hour, he was from down in Mexico, they said, where he lived on a mesa getting ready to dance three days and three nights once a year. I can smell the red dust raised by his feet, the Pharisees in black robes swirling up the dust around him. He jumped so far sideways my stomach hurt and there was a dizziness in the air as if there wasn't enough air to breathe. He was a deer.

Harrison deals with the eccentricities of Dalva and her family with tact and humor. Dalva drives around on the plains, dodging thunderstorms in a convertible that's missing its top. She keeps a folding cot stashed away in the Arizona mountains in case she should be near enough to hike in and spend the night. Her mother, a widow for several decades, finds solace each night by sitting on the porch swing and conversing with her late husband. Michael describes with pride how by age 16 he ``knew the birthdates of all the kings and queens of England.''

Ultimately, the quirkiness of these characters expresses their sanity. ``Dalva'' turns out to be a festival of life's poetry.

Michael C.M. Huey is on the Monitor staff.

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