Sunday, March 27, 2016

Jim Harrison: An Appreciation



I actually got to know and love Jim Harrison before I really knew his books. Well, actually, I had read Dalva, and I knew about Wolf and, of course, Legends of the Fall, but it was only after I'd assigned myself to interview him, for Publishers Weekly, back in 2006, that I read his almost complete oeuvre. Harrison, who died on March 26 at his home in Arizona at age 78, was a great, prolific writer, and his examinations, in many books, of the racial melting pot that was his beloved UP (Upper Peninsula in Michigan), have more Legendsenergy, passion and wit than just about any other writer's, whatever the topic. Many say he was Hemingwayish in his interests and topics – the outdoors, hunting, eating, imbibing any- and everything – but he was more soulful. He was also funny, both on and off the page. And, for a guy known for his excesses of behavior, he was surprisingly old-fashioned and courtly; I remember checking into a hotel in Grand Rapids, MI, where Harrison went a few days a year to teach – the university there had offered him more for his papers than any of the fancier places back east – and finding a note at the desk, inviting me for breakfast – in his room. "There's a parlor," he wrote, in a strikingly careful hand. Just so I wouldn't misunderstand. I showed up for breakfast and for 36 hours, with just a few hours off for sleep, we drank, he smoked, and we talked, about his books, but also about food, and friends, and life. (We had several friends in common; I told him how one of them had been my secret crush for years. "You should have said something," he said.) And most of all we laughed – and for a few months afterward, we stayed in touch by email, beginning with the note he sent me that complimented me on the piece I'd written, "It's good – there are only two mistakes! Here, then a little bit of that piece from bit of that piece...

High literary allusions cheek by jowl with silly, sometimes childish wordplay? Who knew? In my marathon daylong-plus interview with Jim Harrison in Grand Rapids, Mich.—where he teaches at Grand Valley State University five days a year—he told the class of undergraduates, for instance, that he counted among his influences Rimbaud "the French poet, not the character played by Sylvester Stallone." While backseat-driving his assistant, Joyce, around town, looking for a liquor store to purchase the vodka he mostly drinks now that his doctor told him his beloved wine is bad for his diabetes, he spouts a line of familiar poetry. "Who wrote that?" I ask him. "Yeats," he says. "Billy." Maybe because he gets the reaction he wants—Joyce nearly drives off the road, we're laughing so hard—a few minutes later he regales us with some lines from Keats, Johnny. But here's what's irresistible about Harrison's humor: he slays himself. He's hugely amused at how amusing he is. When he's having fun, he laughs, he barks, he coughs, he wheezes—he has a cold, he says, but he also smokes a couple of packs of American Spirits a day—and then he fixes you with a cockeyed stare that at first is unsettling, thanks to his wandering, half-blind left eye. But it's not long before you find the whole act charming; the total effect is of a slightly mad, aging elf, a Rabelaisian observer who's had plenty to drink.

What a wonderful, voracious, hilarious, hugely lovable guy he was. RIP Jim Harrison.



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