This past March America lost a prolific novelist and accomplished poet, whose literary fame was greater abroad than here at home. A representative sample of Jim Harrison’s work is found in the AUTHORS NOTES section of his most recent (final) book, THE ANCIENT MINSTREL. Published earlier this year, the book contains three separate novellas, the first one bearing the book’s title. ANCIENT MINSTREL is Harrison’s swan song to his fans and to himself; a deeply reflective analysis of the poetry, prose, people, and other life forces relentlessly carrying him towards his final curtain. An interview of Harrison from a few years back is available on YOUTUBE. A disheveled, overweight, chain-smoking old man, an open bottle of French wine within easy reach, gasps and grunts his comments into the camera, alternating sips of wine with long drags on an ever-present cigarette dangling from a mouth buried deep within tangled facial hair. Late in life Harrison’s worsening health issues provided the author a wealth of writing material.
Jim Harrison’s obituary in the NY TIMES on March 27, 2016 neatly described the man and his art this way: “the undertow that pulls at Harrison’s characters are food, alcohol, sex, and outdoorsmanship.” In his books where excesses and compulsions and dysfunctional human relations are foundational themes, Harrison comes across as a lustful old man struggling with non-functioning body parts, alternating his binge-drinking whiskey with sipping multiple bottles of expensive French Merlot with friends. He relishes wolfing down gargantuan banquets of rich food in a ravenous frenzy pointedly ignoring his chronic problems with gout whenever the subject is eating. But the man and his writing is much more than the well-polished musings of a self-confessed glutton.
Harrison developed his love of fishing as child in northern Michigan farm country. Throughout his life he kept company with packs of loyal hunting dogs, unashamedly crying bitter tears when it came time to bid a favorite a last goodbye. Not long before Harrison’s death he realized another dream by purchasing a pregnant sow from a local farmer. From the ensuing litter of baby pigs Harrison adopted a piglet he named Marjorie. He enjoyed hitching his new pet to a dog leash to take leisurely walks in the countryside where he watched Marjorie terrorize his neighbors’ dogs with squeals of outrage and stamping of feet. Episodes like these, simply described, epitomize Harrison’s celebration of ordinary life he saw infused with humor, irony, and, ultimately, sadness. His genius was developing complex themes and presenting them in seemingly an off-handed manner, but in truth is the finished product of really good writing. Book critics of Harrison often use the term “honest” when referencing his work. It is hard to disagree.
In ANCIENT MISTREL Harrison’s main character (himself) is presented in the third person, sardonically offering clever excuses for one of several character flaws: “His hard work came during a period when he was utterly indulgent at the table. How could he write well if he was thinking about food all the time? It didn’t work to write about sex, doom, death, time, and the cosmos when you were thinking about a massive bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.”
Harrison was also a celebrated poet, a labor of love begun at age 14. He won poetry awards he said he never knew existed until the prizes were announced. Harrison’s most recent book of poetry also released in 2016, DEAD MAN’S FLOAT, is a collection of old Harrison favorites. He writes: “I am the old man alone in a hotel / waiting for a ride north to Mayo Pain Clinic / Loneliness is only a theory when we have / the past, which is a vast tumble of events. / Sort and resort and never win. / We live with our memories, a backpack / of mostly trash we can barely carry.”
Before Harrison became successful, Hollywood actor and longtime friend Jack Nicholson lent him money to see him through a rough patch, a gesture Harrison never forgot. LEGENDS OF THE FALL, a Harrison book turned movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, brought Harrison much needed fortune, accompanied by fame he never embraced. He promptly loaned a portion of this windfall to old friends who forgot to pay him back, excepting two Native American associates who repaid their debt in full, Harrison reported. The author acknowledged his poor grasp of financial matters, relying on expensive lawyers to extricate him from IRS troubles, after failing to regularly file his federal taxes.
A searing childhood incident referenced more than a few times in Harrison’s writings involved a little girl impulsively thrusting a broken bottle into his face, permanently blinding him in his left eye. Another Harrison fixation is women’s “undies,” “thighs,” “crotches,” and other parts of the (preferably younger aged) female anatomy. He shamelessly shares his infidelities and erotic fantasies (including recalling students he met as a college instructor many years earlier) with his audience. These fleeting descriptions of sexual escapades and lustful passes at women gone wrong regularly appear in Harrison’s storylines. While we cannot help but feel empathy for Harrison’s wife and family, these passages somehow do not offend our sensibilities, instead peaking our interest in what happens next. This reflects the talents of an extremely effective writer.
Harrison found inspiration from ordinary people and the dive bars he and his friends liked to frequent. He contrasted those settings with his gorging on large lumps of French foie gras pate’ and slurping down dozens of glistening oysters in expensive restaurants in Paris and in other high-end eateries around the world. Attaining celebrity status in the middle of life, Jim Harrison did not turn his back on the people and places he came from. He and his wife did, however, relocate to Montana from Michigan when they could finally afford it.
Intolerant of adulation from people he did not know and increasingly frustrated with aspiring writers asking how to achieve literary greatness, Harrison’s offers these parting words in THE ANCIENT MINSTREL: “Feeling bright-eyed, confident, and arrogant doesn’t do the job unless you’re writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head . . . It has been said that there is an intense similarity in people’s biographies. It’s our dreams and visions that separate us. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself.”
Unconfirmed details of Jim Harrison’s death this past March have him dying of a heart attack, pen in hand. He envisioned this dramatic departure long before fame struck. Fact or fiction, it would have been a classically appropriate ending for a man who over-indulged in life, in the processing achieving fame writing about how and why he did what he did.