The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison. Grove Press. 255 pp. $25.00
I’d like to say I’m Jim Harrison’s greatest fan, though there’s a lot of competition for that spot. I began reading him back in the eighties when my fellow clerks at the local bookstore raved about him. I started with Sundog and went through the entire oeuvre, have continued ever since. Harrison is perhaps best known for his first collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall, but has also written novels, poetry, and some offhanded essays, including a marvelous food column that he did for a couple of magazines.
The unique thing about any Harrison narrator is the way he can take the ordinary moments of life and make them magical, partly because of what he notices, partly the way his mind works. I feel as if any paragraph, selected at random, could make my point, so I’ll try one from the title novella, a passage about the narrator’s pigs.
“He had begun calling the sow Darling or D, elongated to Dee in his midwestern drone which, earlier in life when the comedian was current, people said reminded them of Herb Shriner. This was meant as ridicule but he didn’t mind because he liked Herb Shriner. Darling farrowed and gave him nine piglets. He watched it all leaning on the pen. He said to himself ironically, “The miracle of birth,” but in truth he felt it deeply. It was a lot to ask of a female. Tragically the third day he lost his favorite, the runt of the litter he had called Alice. The sow had rolled over and crushed one of her children. He carried the little body into the studio and put her on his desk. He sobbed. He had intended her to be his best friend. They would take walks together every day and if she got tired he would carry her home like he had done with one of his dogs. He wrapped her carefully in a big red bandana thinking that she was yet another of the deep injustices of life. He dug a hole near the pen and decorated it with a circle of rocks. He put her wrapped body down in the hole, dropped a handful of earth on it, and said an actual prayer for the deliverance of her soul. He had crisscrossed two yellow pencils in the shape of a cross, glued them together, and stuck them in Alice’s grave.”
That seems as representative as anything else, with Harrison entirely out there, weeping at the death of a piglet; he understands the irony of calling it tragic and a major injustice. This is a man who hunts and fishes all the time, kills animals almost daily. He is a member of the first thought best thought school of writing and throws the words down, grammatical or not; I can hear my tenth grade English teacher making any number of criticisms of that paragraph, but Harrison—according to an editor friend of mine who has worked with him—won’t change anything, for any reason. But there is something about following a character’s days moment by moment that is absolutely fascinating; you’re getting the real deal. And there is something lovable about the man. Exasperating, but lovable.
The typical Harrison character—I would almost say every character he’s written about—loves the outdoors. (For a while Harrison wrote articles on hunting and fishing for Sports Illustrated, including a great one called, “Ice Fishing, the Moron Sport.”) He is obsessed with food, and we hear about almost everything he eats, including some strange items and odd combinations. He is a major drinker. (Another editor friend of mine worked with Harrison at Dell, and said that when the man walked into the offices he immediately said, “Where’s the booze?”) He is also obsessed with, devoted to, and tormented by sex, doesn’t hold back on the embarrassing details. In this volume, there is more mention of men sneaking a look up women’s skirts than in any other book I’ve ever read (the only competitor would be another Harrison book). As a man who finds such behavior childish and embarrassing, I don’t know what to say. Except that, as with the baby pig, if he does it, he’s going to tell you about it.
I think the reason women like him is that he’s completely honest.
The title novella, as he admits in an author’s note, is about Harrison himself. I always assume all of Harrison’s characters—even the women—are somewhat autobiographical—but this is really him; he mentions Legends of the Fall. He’s up to his usual pursuits, though he is puzzled, in his mid-seventies, by the loss of sexuality, by which he seems to mean he no longer wants to hit on every woman he meets. That sounds like the emergence of wisdom. His wife wants to live apart (I’ve always wondered what she thought of all the sex, or at least all the writing about it), and wants him to quit drinking. He works at that by buying shooters, those little bottles they give you on airplanes, though he buys so many and drinks them so often that he might as well go ahead and buy a fifth. He speaks frankly of his lifelong tendency to gorge on food. He talks about screenplays, which have been a major source of money, even when they weren’t produced.
There is a feeling here of a man clutching his writing the way a drowning man grabs a life preserver. I had the feeling in the past that Harrison had long stretches when he went off and lived, came back to his cabin bursting with an idea and threw it down on paper. Now the feeling is that, perhaps because he’s not as physically active, writing is all he can do. If he doesn’t write he’ll think about encroaching age, or the fact that his wife recently died. He puts in long hours.
The second novella, Eggs, is about a woman who is obsessed with that subject, the ones chickens lay and also her own. I sometimes think that writing from the standpoint of a woman gives Harrison a helpful distance—I regard Dalva as his greatest creation—though the women tend to have unconventional sex lives, drink and eat a lot, and even love fishing. (The woman in this novella, Catherine, at one point has a fresh grouper sandwich for lunch and an order of fresh shrimp. Hmm.) She has met a man early in life who was badly injured in the war, and becomes determined to have a child with him. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Catherine is a character, but this novella—like the first—was a compelling read.
I wish I could say the same about The Case of the Howling Buddhas, which features the return of Sunderson, the retired detective featured in Harrison’s two most recent novels, The Great Leader and The Big Seven. I don’t understand why a man who, by his own admission, hasn’t read much detective fiction felt compelled to write some, but as with The Big Seven, which I didn’t actually finish, the story seems more concerned with Harrison’s private obsessions than with the plot, which seems perfunctory and entirely silly.
In The Big Seven the 66 year old Sunderson was involved, unbelievably I thought, with a 19 year old girl; in this story his love interest is 15 and quite attractive, so the relationship is not only unbelievable, it’s illegal. Harrison seems to be dealing with some private obsessions in this story, including sexual compulsion and voyeurism. It’s both funny and not funny. I don’t understand a detective story where the plot might as well not even be there, and an essentially comic work—major laughs all the way through—that ends suddenly and tragically. Harrison seems to be saying something about his true attitude toward his obsessions. But if he wanted to do that, he should have given himself more space, and another vehicle.
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