“Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… or they become legend. ” –Jim Harrison
In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. If you have read Jim Harrison, more than likely, you were blinded by his poetry and prose.
I’ve heard of Jim Harrison since I was a young boy, but it wasn’t until I received a catalogue from Grove Atlantic that I sat down, away from my own selfish paperback endeavors, and decided to read nearly everything by one of the greatest American fiction writers of all time. What kind of egotistical, navel-gazing writer out there doesn’t take this opportunity? What more impetus does an aspirant literate need?
After requesting everything Grove had to offer, I sent Copper Canyon a message requesting his poetry and hit the local library and bookstore for his earlier stuff. Within a week, I had received from Grove Atlantic Harrison’s memoir Off to the Side, his adventures as a roving gourmand The Raw and The Cooked, and his fictional novellas and novels Julip, The Summer He Didn’t Die, Returning to Earth, The English Major, The Great Leader, The River Swimmer, and Brown Dog. Copper Canyon sent me The Shape of the Journey and Songs of Unreason, nearly 600 pages of poetry. From the store, I purchased The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Dalva, Wolf and Legends of The Fall.
Overall, the fifteen books weighed around twenty-five pounds in mental edibleness. I know because I put them on the scale at a grocery market impressed by the idea of the weight of one man’s knowledge.
I started my journey on a plane to Boston reading his memoir and poetry. Harrison, which I will refer to intermittingly as Jim because I feel a part of his soul wove its way into mine, considers himself a poet first. It seemed like the auspicious place to start, though I am in the wolf stage of my life and Harrison is in the bear and raven.
When I think of individual poems, I think of a completed, one or so page, story. As I finished The Shape of the Journey and Songs of Unreason, the first and last of Jim’s poetry, I realized I had not read one completed story at the ending of each poem. Instead, I’d watched as each poem escorted itself to the next, producing a book of a man’s life written doggedly over the course of his existence. Through poetry and in the beauty of morality, it was the most complete story I have ever read about a man’s life. It was chronological to the point of despair, complete to the point of tears, and maddening to the point of self-reflection.
To read the most vulnerable workings of a man’s life, of a great man’s life, selfless to the point of narcissism, made my planet exponentially grow outward, but my bleep in it soften to a faint echo. “Death steals everything, but our stories,” Harrison said.
His memoir, Off to the Side, was like a self-help book for real and fugacious writers, nomads, wastrels, the wild, and the found. What I call The Harrison Ethos. Here, Jim explains the idea that it takes a man multiple lifetimes of looking inward, to tolerably explain the out. And, not only looking inward, but looking inward at every facet of yourself, both male and female, crazy and confined, the lies and the truth, leaving no stone unturned in the metaphysical reality of the subconscious. Only then, can a person glimpse, as Jim would refer, -how little they know.
After Harrison’s bestowment of knowledge on his seven obsessions: Alcohol, Stripping, Hunting & Fishing & Dogs, Private Religion, France, The Road, and Nature & Natives, or what to know about pretty much everything important, I dropped myself into the middle of his fiction pile.
I started my introduction into his prose with the infamous character Brown Dog from the novella The Woman Lit by Fireflies. After The Woman Lit, I went right into Brown Dog, which could really be the memoir of Harrison. I’m not entirely sure it isn’t. Brown Dog is tentatively being released in December and contains “He Dog”, which has never before been published. Brown Dog, like Harrison, is a hellacious character of wit and lewdness. Brown Dog has a problem with telling the truth, is looking for love in usually the wrong places, and is the poster boy for repeatedly bad behavior. You can’t help but love him.
Now juxtaposing Harrison’s fiction and non-fiction, I found something clearer and commonly reiterated in Harrison’s stories. People are waiting for enlightenment handouts. They aren’t coming. They aren’t coming.
As Harrison explained it, “There is the additional corrective that on any given day for any number of reasons you are bound to look at your past a little differently.” Maybe that is enlightenment. “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and drew water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and drew water.” Maybe that’s the effect.
Finishing Brown Dog, which is also comprised of “The Seven-Ounce Man”, “Westward Ho”, “The Summer he Didn’t Die”, and “Brown Dog Redux”, I found myself captivated as if I was listening to a best friend tell a story. I could hear Harrison’s voice like one I had known my entire life. His groggy, flame-retardant larynx, gutturally shared with me around a bottle of wine and a few packs of American Spirit cigarettes.
Starving one night after working a shift at my shitty part-time, I continued my Harrison journey and picked up The Raw and the Cooked. “While I have the gravest doubts about the durability of any of my writing, few can beat me at the graceful dance of knife, fork, and spoon across the plate or the capacity to make a pickle last as long as sandwich,” Harrison said.
Harrison is a foodie and wine aficionado. I watched the episode of him on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations well before reading my first book of his two months ago. Bourdain’s episode, which takes place in Livingston, Montana, one of the hat-hanging towns of Harrison, is by far one of Bourdain’s greatest episodes.
Having some faux culinary bravado, I decided to cook something Harrison talks a lot about, grouse. I had never heard of this bird, but imagined it cooked like chicken. Regardless, it had to be a step up from my Ramen Noodles. Not sure on wine, even though I read a section dedicated to it in the book, I went with a couple of bottles of Francis Coppola my parents sometimes drank. I wouldn’t know the difference in any of them, except at the checkout counter.
The wine was good, but I totally butchered the meal. Before cooking, I found out it was duck by the package. The butcher lied to me. So I braised the duck legs, which I now I think I baked them not sure on the difference, and oven roasted the rest for 3 hours, which I burnt, as I didn’t rotate it every thirty minutes once the wine started flowing. I ate it and luckily didn’t get a case of lava butt the following morning. Maybe, I was a little overzealous with the idea of cooking grouse since I didn’t even know what the damn bird looked like. I rationalized it was because the birds were naked in the store.
Continually reading the book while I cooked, I barbecued a chicken using Sweet Baby Ray’s (“The Boss Sauce,”) as Jim calls it, as a base. It was a much simpler task. But, if you are going to fail, fail at full speed.
As stated on the cover, “The Raw and The Cooked” comprise Harrison’s adventures as a roving gourmand, a professional eater. Jim Harrison has dined and eaten nearly everything and everywhere, his pallet in the culinary world is as legendary as his writing in the literary. The book is sharp with humor and culture, and gave food more of a sense that just stuffing for my belly. It was a gastronomic lesson in the fulfillment of being truly nourished.
I went back to my Ramen Noodles and his fiction picking up the novel, The English Major, which follows a man, after losing nearly everything, on a cross-country road trip. Cliff, the dejected man, is throwing out the car’s window pieces from a map of the United States puzzle as he crosses each state’s border.
From there I read Julip, The Great Leader, The River Swimmer, Returning to Earth, Dalva, and finished with Wolf and Legends of the Fall.
Harrison’s writing is ubiquitous with boyish charm and stoic like an immortal monster waiting in his cave for some elephant testicled knight to come proving a point. His work plainly shows that he is writing for himself, and enjoys it whether you do or don’t. I found myself unremittingly conquered by his words, sodden in laughter, choked up like a first-time drunk, and I hate to say it…enlightened. Just alone my vocabulary grew ten-fold as Harrison must be a walking dictionary besides an encyclopedia. I am better reader and writer for it.
I thought about giving a short synopsis on each book, but I decided, along with the numerous quotes cited throughout this article, my favorite one from his poetry, memoir, and Brown Dog would serve as the best description. I really didn’t want to become a book jacket writer and it would be otiose and tenuously redundant to transcribe what I thought of each book. They were equally amazing.
“Robert Creeley once said, partly reconstructing Olson, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ True and sage. We choose what suits us and will not fairly wear what doesn’t fit. Don’t try to bury a horse in a human coffin, no matter how much you loved the horse, or stick some mute, lovely butterfly or luna moth in a damp cavern. I hate to use the word, but form must be an ‘organic’ revelation of content or the poem, however otherwise likely, will strike us false or merely trickery, an exercise in wit, crochet, pale embroidery.” The Shape of the Journey, pg 127
“I feel as foreign as Geronimo at the New York World’s Fair at the turn of the century…The most solid effect of the deaths that I could touch upon was that I must answer to what I thought of as my calling since nothing else on earth had any solidity.” Memoir: Off to the Side, pg 130 & 184
“It centers on the image of dead bodies in the parking lot of a restaurant in Minnesota where the food was so gruesome and humiliating that patrons committed suicide after exiting. Rather than ruing the needle in the eye that is a bad meal, I turned my thoughts to cholesterol, which has now surpassed the Budweiser Clydesdales in the banality sweepstakes. It occurred to me that cholesterol problems are caused, as usual, by the failure of the imagination.” The Raw and The Cooked, pg 125
“After the big argument I ran off to the bar, which violates my probation. I came home just before dawn smelling of perfume. Who wore the perfume I can’t say except she was not local.” The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Brown Dog, pg 20
“In general B.D. didn’t care for huge dogs as often they were bullies which he also loathed in humans. Grandpa taught him how to box so he didn’t have to put up with bullies. In both dogs and men it was ugly.” Brown Dog, He Dog, pg 501
I was able to contact Harrison through his poetry editor, Joseph Badnarik, who got me in contact with his assistant Joyce Bahle. Now, I could have asked him questions about his writing, life, or his favorite whatever, but I am sure he has been asked those type questions a thousand times. Most of those answers are in his books. To wit:
Writing? “The problem with both town and gown is the temptation to write for one’s peers rather than from the heart…I shall not piss on the rope that hangs me…Heidegger’s contention that poetry is not elevated common language, but that common language is reduced, banalized poetry”
Life? “Pay out 125 bucks and find out the world is not what you think it is, but what it is.”
Favorite whatever? “Gerard Oberle is the Michael Jordan of French cuisine.”
And then he would probably be asked something about alcohol, which he responds, “Drinking has to be strictly self-controlled the moment it negatively affects our character and behavior.” Which I think can be said about anything.
That taught nearly everything, or at least put me on the right path. I went with eight questions I wanted answered.
Rakowski: “Do you want your eye back or did you ever? “
Harrison: “Of course, but that is hopelessly stupid. You know you aren’t getting it back. I learned to shoot good though. It was only troublesome when I played football. I was a middle linebacker, it was hard seeing people coming from the left.”
Rakowski: “If you could fist-fight one person who would it be?”
Harrison: “No, those feelings aren’t here anymore. I don’t have any long-term enemies, but people don’t like me. It goes with the territory. They have content if you are doing good or doing bad. I retired from fighting at 40. There is too much physical strength in rural areas. You don’t want to fuck with loggers, they live all around my cabin. If you fight, you want to fight graduate students.”
Rakowski: “Favorite thing to hunt now?”
Harrison: “Hunting doves along the Mexican border. Quail hunting, but my spinal surgery had me log sitting and not walking around as much.”
Rakowski: “What is the best strip club in Montana?”
Harrison: “There isn’t a good one. The Night Before in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
Rakowski: “I know you have a connection with crows, ravens, and bears. Do you think you have a spirit animal? Has it shown itself?”
Harrison: “I don’t know. I think we all do. I like bears and the birds they are scavengers like a writer has to be.”
Rakowski: “Is there anything left you want to write about?”
Harrison: “I just finished a novel two months ago and a novella, Eggs.”
Rakowski: “Do you have any upcoming book engagements?”
Harrison: not anymore. I don’t like to do it.
Rakowski: “What did you think of Anthony Bourdain? I love his show and particularly his Montana episode.”
Harrison: “He is wonderful.”
“What do you do for a living?” he asked.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“What a horrible profession. Too much macaroni.”
“I eat a lot of Ramen,” I told him.
“Too much of that too.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I know where that is. Go kill snakes in the Everglades, there is an idea. I use to go to the keys for thirty years when the state still smelt like garbage and there weren’t people everywhere. I loved the tarpon fishing there.”
With that, what more can be said about nearly the entirety of a man’s work? About the entirety of a man? Who am I to say it? To become innocuously corny: After finishing all of the books and talking with him, it was easy to see Harrison resting his head among the perpetual Blue Mountains of Montana. There, I galvanize him as a mountain, safe and slowly growing larger with time. He can’t yield to the wind, or move for the sake of progress, he just is and you decide to go around him or through him by way of his literature. There will be nothing again quite like the great blue mountain that is Jim Harrison.