I’m only going to write about one of the three novellas in this collection, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name.” The other two, “Revenge” and “Legends of the Fall,” are worthy, but neither impacted me the way “The Man” did.
I first came to this novella (89 pages) years ago when I was still in my twenties and starting out as a writer. It was Harrison’s prose that blew me away. The voice isn’t stream-of-consciousness as much as it is just “consciousness”–representing thinking and awareness, the inner life of its main character.
I’ve probably read the novella four or five times. What keeps me coming back is the Nordstram: white, age 43, stoic, proud, well-off, and experiencing a midlife crisis. Sounds cliche. Handled with tremendous skill and empathy.
Of course, there’s a lot not to like in these days about literature concerning a successful middle-aged white man suffering a crisis. I was sensitive to this in my most recent re-read. Nonetheless, I’m drawn to stories about the search for identity. What’s at stake when who you are or thought you were is up for serious debate? A lot is at stake, whoever you are.
I want to pose such questions when I write.
The plot: Nordstrom gets divorced from his wife of twenty years, abandons his career as an oil-industry executive, moves from west coast to east, gives his money away, and searches for himself. He does this by dancing alone in his apartment at night, kindling a positive relationship with his daughter, fucking around, and–most bizarre of all–engaging in a possibly unnecessary but clearly cathartic act of violence.
Along the way, his father dies and he makes a trip to his native Wisconsin that gives Harrison the opportunity to showcase his artistry in writing about that region. He also gets to write about food and cooking, which he did so well for Esquire for many years.
In the end, Nordstrom ends up at peace, working as a line cook at a restaurant in Florida, having a few trysts, spending his day off fishing.
Nordstrom is a believable character on a mostly sympathetic journey. Old-school, for sure. Masculinity, if you don’t mind. I loved the style of writing, although that style didn’t work for me is some of Harrison’s other books, and he sort wrote about the same thing all the time.
Still, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” had a big impact on me and drew me back multiple times, and for that reason belongs on my list of “The Most Important Novels in My Life.”