Reading Jim Harrison really is good for you, almost a guilty pleasure in these hyper-correct times, in much the same way as eating a football-sized sirloin steak while waving to the fellow wearing a ‘meat is murder‘ t-shirt….”
by marc covert
In what could well be one of the best book jacket blurbs of all time, The National Observer’s Bruce Cook was quoted on the back cover of the late Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western: “Brautigan is good for you. No writer you can think of is quite like him today, nor was any writer anytime—unless you can imagine the kind of things Mark Twain might have written had he wandered into a field of ripe cannabis with a pack of Zig Zag papers in his pocket.”
The same could be said for Brautigan’s friend, drinking partner, and fellow writer Jim Harrison, whose latest book, Off to the Side: A Memoir, was published recently by Atlantic Monthly Press. Off to the Side gives Harrison room to stretch out; to write at length about his life and work in a more direct manner than he has allowed himself in the past—his famous novellas rarely exceed 100 pages (Legends of the Fall captures two generations of the Ludlow family and can rightly be considered an epic tale, all in a scant 81 pages), and while Harrison’s fiction obviously borrows heavily from his life experiences, here he is able to offer his readers a more sizable slab of the story behind the persona that has built up around him through his work.
The fact that his is not a household name, one to join the likes of Steven King, Danielle Steele, or John Grisham on the popular reading shelf, is at once puzzling and encouraging—if you are scratching your head now, wondering what Harrison has written, try to picture the cover of his novella collection Legends of the Fall, with the faces of Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn lined up in an Unholy Trinity, gazing dolefully off into the distance in a classic Hollywood poster pose. You’ve seen it, if not at the local Book Barn, then maybe staring out from the wall on a video box. Jim Harrison wrote that book, and twenty-three other books that are just waiting to be devoured. There is much to look forward to for any reader who has not yet discovered the animal and cerebral charms of his fiction and poetry.
Harrison has spent almost forty years producing a small mountain of works (some twenty-two volumes) in his capacities as novelist, poet, screenwriter, food critic, magazine journalist, and essayist. His fiction is filled with heroic, grand, fully human characters who face their lives and times with a combination of strength, frailty, wicked humor, and fierce intelligence, always with an eye to the great sensual delights that are there for the taking as long as one is willing to allow him or herself to live fully. He is rightly famous for writing about food, sex, wine, and recreational drug use like no other. Reading Jim Harrison really is good for you, almost a guilty pleasure in these hyper-correct times, in much the same way as eating a football-sized sirloin steak while waving to the fellow wearing a “meat is murder” t-shirt.
For a large chunk of his male audience, reading Jim Harrison at face value has the tendency to make you want to drink a fifth of whiskey, smoke a gigantic blunt, snort rails of cocaine from the belly of a backwoods barmaid who’s half a decade past her prime, punch out a foul-tempered, drunken lumberjack (“pulp cutter” in the parlance of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), gulp a handful of whatever happens to be rattling around in jars in the medicine cabinet, kill and eat a bloody rare side of roasted venison, broil yourself to a screaming red crisp in the Key West sun while fly-casting for 150-pound tarpon, and engage in extended bouts of coupling with various and sundry women in the back of a ’73 Ford Econoline. All in one day. Maybe that’s why Harrison has been saddled by so many critics with the role of a modern-day Hemingway, much to his amazement and chagrin. You tend to see the word “macho” cropping up in any collection of reviews of his work, a term that would cause Harrison to spit a huge mouthful of his beloved menudo, a Mexican tripe stew with legendary hangover-curing properties, all over the room as he bellows in protest. But you’ll never be sure if he’s truly pissed off about being misunderstood (“cutting off the horse’s legs to fit him in a box stall” is a favorite Harrison euphemism) or if it’s just mock outrage. There is much of the imp, the playful, naughty child, in the man. But there is also a deeply intellectual, philosophical, spiritual side to Harrison’s stories, and he suffers badly any fool who holds him up as the summation of all of his roguish characters, all of his “men behaving badly.”
Off to the Side would probably benefit from being read after having already consumed a large helping of Harrison’s previous works. Those who are familiar with his poetry and fiction will find welcome flashes of recognition throughout—Harrison is a fiercely private man, allowing scarce glimpses at best of the lives of his wife and children, but thankfully is more than willing to ruminate on his life when he consents to interviews, or in his nonfiction works, which were collected in 1991’s Just Before Dark. Those who have already read Just Before Dark know of the tragic deaths of his father and 19-year-old sister, killed horribly together by a drunk driver when Harrison was in his early twenties; in Off to the Side he gives voice to the “what ifs” that have plagued him ever since—he blames himself on sleepless nights “when our brains are naked and accessible…” (“If I had made up my mind about hunting with them a minute earlier, moments earlier, my father and sister would have avoided the collision. They would have been ten miles, five miles, a single mile away from fatality.”) They know also of the blinding of his left eye at age seven by a neighbor girl who stuck a broken bottle into his face—rough play indeed—resulting in the cloudy, wandering eye that has plagued him ever since.
Much of what he says about his life in Off to the Side will be familiar to Harrison devotees, but he has always been firmly entrenched in the now, and always strives to embrace change, stubbornly refusing to fall back on the familiar, especially in his art of writing. What Harrison has to say bears repeating from such a doggedly introspective man. He is writing from where and who he is now—a 66-year-old man, deeply shocked as we all were by the September 11 attacks (“my cousin’s husband died in the World Trade Center, leaving three fatherless children”), married for 44 years to his high school sweetheart, longing to live closer to their two adult daughters and grandchildren; a serious artist who fully intends to continue chasing his demons, delights, and craft.
Off to the Side is, thankfully, a memoir, quite a different animal from the ghastly moralizing/confessional autobiographies that spew forth in an endless torrent from the same publishing houses, year after year. A good memoir is free from the linear constraints of your garden-variety, ghostwritten autobiography, and in Harrison’s hands the memoir genre takes on a wonderfully vivid quality. He starts out with “Early Life,” a chapter on the meeting, union, and resulting family of his parents, Winfield Sprague Harrison and Norma Olivia Wahlgren. Not surprisingly, their rural life, led close to the earth for mostly economic reasons, instilled in young Jim his lifelong love of hunting, fishing, and wandering about in the woods. “I’ve said elsewhere that I had never heard any comment from my father or uncles in regard to fishing and hunting as ‘manly’ sports,” he writes. “They were simply a part of life. The value judgments about ‘manly’ preoccupations seemed to come later when the country became predominantly urban and semi-urban and people became quite remote from the source of their food.”
From there it’s on to “Growing Up,” where Harrison’s sense of wanderlust drives him, as a high school sophomore, to give up his desire to become a Methodist preacher and to take to the road on a Greyhound bus, traveling to Colorado to take a job as a busboy at a resort. “It was a picaresque summer,” he says in summation, “I climbed a disused, rickety fire with a waitress from Ohio State who shed all of her clothes save her panties. This was an age of heavy petting well before the sexual revolution.” His return to high school stuck him as a true let-down after his summer of misadventures: “My unrest had become permanent, and the only consolation was the hormonal violence of football, the reading of fiction and poetry, doing poorly in my schoolwork.” Thanks to his English teacher he had, by age 16, transferred his religious zeal into a ravenous appetite for literature, announcing at that young age that he would be a writer: “When I was sixteen and I finally admitted to my father that I intended to be a writer he promptly went out and bought me a twenty-buck used typewriter rather than giving me the usual parental lecture on practicality and the doom and shame in the lives of artists.”
“The Real World” begins in a real enough way with his meeting and hastily arranged marriage to Linda King, today his wife of 44 years—”hastily” due in large part to Linda’s pregnancy with their daughter Jamie. He finishes his B.A. at Michigan State and starts graduate school; then changes gears and opens Book II: “Seven Obsessions.”
Here he indulges himself (and the reader) in reflections on his seven obsessions: alcohol (“the black lung disease of the writer;” “not quite a disease in my case”); stripping (“And on the rarest, rarest of occasions you become a witness of true beauty, a marriage of nudity and dance so compelling that your breath shortens, the heart beats its staccato tachycardia of actual lust, the kind that persistently fills the world with people, the summum bonum of desire that the best of the world’s poets have been singing for five thousand years”); hunting, fishing, and dogs (“If you hunt or fish a couple of weeks in a row without reading newspapers or watching television news a certain not altogether deserved grace can re-enter your life. Newsworthy events and people, as always, have gotten along in the usual ways without your mental company”); private religion (as opposed to institutional religion); France (Harrison is a gourmand’s gourmand, or, as he likes to describe himself, “a pig” when it comes to food and wine); the road (Harrison loves to disappear on long road trips, driving himself and staying in cheap motels, disappearing into anonymity, “off to the side” literally; “my peculiar sampling of places”); nature and natives (“We have organized a virtual theocracy of land rape wherein all the steps of our iron feet are acceptable if not sacred. I am mindful moment by moment that this is the world I live in. I know the details. Nothing has changed since Mark Twain reminded us that Congress is our only truly criminal class of citizens”).
Then, neatly on to Book III: “The Rest of Life,” in which Harrison stumbles through academia sufficiently to earn a master’s degree and find out he cannot bear to be an academic (“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook when it occurred to me that the English department had all of the charm of a streetfight where no one ever actually landed a punch”); the deaths of his father and sister, which led to a complete mental and emotional collapse, resulting in family members debating openly about “what to do about Jim.” It was during this time of being lost that Harrison began to write poetry, with some success, although he didn’t write his first novel, Wolf, until much later, while recuperating from a back injury after falling off a cliff while hunting—a lucky injury, he feels, since at the time he never stayed still long enough to write a novel. “Early Hollywood” and “Middle Hollywood” detail his long stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, a not altogether bad way to make a living, he says, but one that he has given up—for now. Harrison still wants to write a good movie that actually gets made, something he does not admit fully to pulling off just yet. A $30,000 loan from Jack Nicholson—unsolicited by Harrison—allowed him to write his collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall in 1979, finally achieving commercial success, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Off to the Side ends on a somewhat sad note: as Harrison penned the final pages he was on that very day closing the sale of his beloved Michigan farmhouse, with its detached granary converted into an office and writing space, for 33 years the space where he produced much of his best work. But he and Linda are moving to Montana to be closer to their daughters and their families; he is working on a new novel; he promises a fourth in the “Brown Dog” series of novellas, good news indeed to those who love B.D., Harrison’s one recurring character and a great comfort to his creator.
Lucy Calkins, in “Making Memoir Out of the Pieces of Our Lives,” wrote “I used to think that we write memoir when our lives are done and we want to give one last, loving look back.” Off to the Side would be truly sad if that were the case with Harrison, but if this book and The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000) are any indication, he is an author of tremendous importance at the height of his powers, and a writer who still has his cards close to his chest, bringing his book to a close with “It may have been presumptuous but I didn’t tell the stories within my stories in this memoir.” But if we’re all lucky, he will continue to do so through his fiction.