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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Jim Harrison: Conveying the physical and the cerebral

"The discovery of garlic seemed an important aspect of my development as an artist, equal to that of figuring out that red wine was better for the imagination than beer."

This is from page 60 of Off to the Side (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002), Jim Harrison's just-published memoir, as fine a portrait of the species American writer as we're ever likely to have. Good ol', bad ol' Jim Harrison, the aesthete of pleasure — the pleasures of good food, companionship, nature, wine. Most of all, perhaps, the pleasures of literature.

Unlike many autobiographies and memoirs, the book's far from taxidermy, rather the living, stomping, befouling, brilliant beast itself.

We're all of us terrible gossips, we readers and writers. Why else would we choose to rummage about so relentlessly in others' lives and minds? So, as Harrison tells us of his years as a developing writer, "a very good fighter in the short haul but with no real prospects," of his success with Legends of the Fall, of his years as a highly-paid, mostly unproduced screenwriter, of his hunting and his drinking and his dogs, we listen: two friends sitting over a bottle of wine talking in low tones.

He is an old friend to many of us who've followed his books, or at any rate seems one. (Explaining here his reason for not telling the stories within the stories, he asks, "Why would anyone care about my memoirs unless they directly cared about my novels and poems?") With the like of Wolf, Dalva, The Woman Lit By Fireflies, The Road Home, and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Harrison has become for some of us the very image of the dedicated writer, refusing to follow any literary fashion, to veer towards either the bookish or commercial, implacably pursuing his own vision and themes. Add to the novels and novellas not only the poems but also The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, and Just Before Dark: Collected Nonfiction, and we have on our hands an impressive, truly unique body of work.

A French critic once told Harrison that the reason for his immense popularity in France is that he writes both of the life of action and the life of the mind — which sounds about right.

Poetry has provided salvation for all of Harrison's life, pulling him back to a common humanity when he strayed, giving him "the freedom not to make a special case for myself." Over the years his poetry has ranged from early nature lyrics to the meditative forms of his remarkable dialog with a tortured Russian poet in "Letters to Yesenin" and of "The Theory and Practice of Rivers," the latter of which Harrison himself characterized as "basically Zennist of an occasionally enraged variety." In The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon, 1998) he asserted that "this book is the portion of my life that means the most to me. I've written a goodly number of novels and novellas but they sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry."

It's been a mutable life. Born to Scandinavian parents possessed of an essential Calvinism he could never quite relinquish even during his wildest days, showing up on time for meetings after the most dissolute nights and sitting at his typewriter with hangovers that put one in mind of the gravity on Jupiter, Harrison had an eye destroyed at age 7 when a neighborhood thrust a broken bottle at his face. The first two decades of his adult years were passed in near-deprivation as he went from hopeful writer to graduate student and teacher back to hopeful writer, sustained by his wife Linda. Then came his stunning, sudden success. Hollywood began shoveling inordinate sums of money his way, precipitating "a kind of hysteria that I attempted to pacify with alcohol and cocaine."

How does one unprepared, unexceptional man experience this much? All inadvertent, Harrison says: "I was just leading with my chin." Little of it planned, still less successful. Coherency, if we attain it at all, we find later. "The mind keeps trying to tell itself a linear children's story to cover the life it has watched the body live." Or, as he put it in one poem:

    I have left our old house and can't remember
    how to find the new.
    The days are stacked against
    what we think we are.

It could easily have been otherwise, Harrison says again and again — and would have been, if not for the work, if not for his wife and family.

Off to the Side is a wholly winning book, a compendium of wonderful anecdotes and observations holding together marvelously and finally giving a fine, clear sense of its author.

"I'm not sure I'm particularly well equipped to tell the truth," he says early on, adding that he has no area of expertise outside of his imagination.

Of youthful bohemianism: "New York and living in the Village made me think I was part of something larger even though I definitely wasn't....On the wall I had taped a photo of Rimbaud from the Gallimard leather edition, also a drawn portrait of Dostoyevsky, two suitable heroes for a young peacock who was all display and no performance. The daily effort was to build a sustainable ego, an exhausting process that left little energy for writing anything."

Of the Hollywood years: "One evening I barbecued thirty pounds of prime beef rib for a crowd including Sean [Connery], Jack [Nicholson], and Warren Beatty who all wore white suits. It was pleasant to destroy so much fine tailoring."

In The Shape of the Journey Harrison quotes Heidegger to the effect that poetry is not elevated common language but that common language is reduced, democratized poetry.

Something in there of the manner in which Harrison has lived and worked, I believe.

When night begins falling, the way you see things is not to look on directly but to focus at some spot just beside them. That, Harrison knows, is the proper place for the writer: off to the side, watching. "It's never the conclusions, it's the story, the experience." Again and again, book after book, year after year, one struggles to keep that focus, to strip insulation off the last half-inch or so of experience's wires to make connections, to tell the story as best one is able.

It's that simple, that impossible.

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