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Jim Harrison lived in servitude to words

bookIn March, Jim Harrison, age 78, died of a heart attack.

Harrison was among the most prolific of American writers, pounding out poems, essays, short stories, novels, a memoir, and cookbooks. In the memoir, Off To The Side, he addresses what he calls his “seven obsessions”: alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing, religion, the road, and the place of the human being in the natural world. He might have included an eighth — cigarettes — as he was a lifelong smoker.

He lost an eye when he was seven years old, and his father and a sister died in a car accident when he was in college. Though he earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and taught for a short time, he spent most of his life as a full-time writer, supported at times by various grants and awards, and by friends, among them actor Jack Nicholson.

Though novels like Wolf and Dalva won critically acceptance, Harrison will probably be remembered best for his novellas. The most famous of these was Legends Of The Fall, which is both a novella and the title for a book containing two other fine short novels, “Revenge” and “The Man Who Gave Up His Name.” Both “Revenge” and “Legends Of The Fall” became movies, with the latter winning several cinema awards.

I have read several of Harrison’s works—Legends Of The Fall, Off To The Side, The Raw and The Cooked, Wolf, and some of the poetry. In addition to his story-telling abilities and his insights into the human heart, what attracted me to Harrison was his style. His prose was muscular, shorn of the extraneous, and could hit the reader like a punch between the eyes. Here, for example, is a passage from “Revenge.” A man named Cochran meets a criminal who has done him great harm. Watch the rhythms of the sentences:

“Cochran moved swiftly to the men’s room keeping his eyes down and walking slightly atilt like a drunken peone. At the men’s room door he palmed Mauro’s knife and exhaled his breath. The big man was standing at the mirror combing his hair and barely glanced at Cochran, who owned the invisibility of the poor. Cochran splashed water messily on his own face and on the huge man who turned in instant rage and raised his arm to club the idiot peone. Cochran stooped as if to take the blow and brought the knife upward, holding the handle with both hands, ripping upward with all his strength starting at the man’s balls, upward to his sternum where he pivoted and swiped the knife across the man’s neck laying it open to the neckbone. As the big man teetered he kicked open a toilet stall and pushed him in where he crashed against the stool.”

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A harsh depiction — Harrison wrote frequently of violence — but powerful in its rhythms and descriptive power. That phrase — “who owned the invisibility of the poor” — is a brilliant addition to the passage.

Given his love of the novella, it is fitting that just before Harrison’s death Grove Press brought out another collection of three long stories, The Ancient Minstrel (Grove Press, 2016, 255 pages, $25). This book includes “The Ancient Minstrel,” “Eggs,” and “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.”

The longest and perhaps most interesting of these tales is “The Ancient Minstrel,” an autobiographical fiction about an aging writer living in Montana who, while trying to raise some pigs and finish a novel, also looks back over his long life and contemplates his legacy. Here Harrison again pays homage to his “seven obsessions” as well as to his family and to writers he has loved over the years. 

What is so touching and so wonderful about The Ancient Minstrel is the prose. It remains as strong as ever. Just now I opened the book at random to page 39, where there is this passage in which the narrator is contemplating his past:

“Now all of these years later he was again burdened by those hidden beliefs. He could not tell you why he believed in the Resurrection but it had never occurred to him to disbelieve it. He took to saying little prayers under his breath. His main problem was alcohol which was easy to acknowledge. He prayed and then didn’t go to the bar for a whole week. He had his shooters at home but no full bottle. One evening he drank seven shooters but didn’t get all that far. He felt he should have been drunker. Now his friends called, really just tavern friends, and asked if he was sick. “”Yes, we all are,” he said cryptically.”

In the epilogue to “The Ancient Minstrel,” Harrison puts the fiction aside and directly addresses the reader. He mentions that at age 18 he discovered the work of an Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti. He quotes a line from one of these poems: “Ho fatto a pezzi cuore e mente per cadere in servitu di parole.” (I have fragmented heart and mind to fall into the servitude of words.)

For over 50 years Harrison lived in servitude to words. He is gone, but the words remain.

Jim Harrison. Requiescat in pace.

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