Book review: Sex, death and spaghetti: Jim Harrison’s last writings
High Country News
The Ancient Minstrel
272 pages, softcover: $25
Grove Press, 2016
On March 27, 2016, Jim Harrison died at his home in Patagonia, Arizona, a final poem left unfinished on his desk. Some writers leave too soon; others, like Harrison, depart when they’re good and ready. He had lived hard, first in Michigan and later in Montana, where his prodigious appetites combined with his love of hunting and fishing to create a persona both urbane and rugged, a sort of backwoods bon vivant. His face, rough-hewn and canny, was that of a man who had lived several lifetimes. “He was active and creative to the end, but it was time to go: No one was less suited to assisted living,” his friend, the novelist Thomas McGuane, wrote in The New Yorker.
Although Harrison’s oeuvre encompassed screenplays, poetry, essays and food reviews — including an ode to a 37-course French lunch — he’s most renowned for his novellas. Harrison has been synonymous with the form since his 1979 masterpiece “Legends of the Fall,” a continent-spanning reflection on betrayal and revenge that paints a kill-or-be-killed portrait of the West. By comparison, Harrison’s last collection of novellas, “The Ancient Minstrel,” published just weeks before his death, has a narrower scope: It’s mostly preoccupied with pigs.
That Harrison would turn to pigs is fitting, given his own porcine qualities. This is not intended as an insult, for there’s much to admire about both pigs and Harrison: their happy hedonism, their keen intelligence, their enviable ability to be “utterly indulgent at the table.” The book’s first, and titular, novella finds Harrison — or, rather, his rueful, fictionalized stand-in — settled down at a Montana farm to write “a magnum version of ‘A Thousand Acres,’” sneak drinks behind the back of his sharp-eyed wife, and “fulfill his childhood dream of owning his own pig.” The gauzy plot wanders through memory and meditation, with occasional flashes of animal husbandry; it’s a pleasant and disorienting reading experience, akin to getting drunk in a field on an idle summer day. The sharpest characters are the pigs. One piglet, Marjorie, “collapsed against his body as if they were lovers. … She fluttered her eyes at him and he couldn’t help but wink.”
Anthropomorphic though Marjorie may be, pigs differ from humans in one important way: So far as we know, they can’t conceptualize their own death. Decline and demise, on the other hand, stalk Minstrel’s third and final novella, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.” Although Buddhas is nominally about a Zen-like cult operating in Michigan, its real subject is Detective Sunderson, a recurring Harrison anti-hero, who, in this case, both encourages and laments the advances of a 15-year-old girl. When he’s not preoccupied with Barbara, Sunderson attempts to cope with his own mortality and decrepitude; he’s single, plagued with prostate discomfort, and, if his tryst is discovered, ticketed for incarceration.
“The poignant fear was that if he went to prison at sixty-six years of age he likely wouldn’t get out until age seventy-six,” Harrison writes, “and by then he’d probably be too weak to fish and wade swift rivers.”
Lust in Harrison’s books is usually a joyous, worshipful affair; in Buddhas, however, Sunderson comes off as creepy and weak. The author’s predilection for pairing nubile Lolitas with dirty old men has never been his most appealing quality, but there’s no satisfaction in watching the noose close around the pedophile.
The best of Minstrel’s three novellas is the second, “Eggs,” which stars a lissome, brainy and precocious heroine named Catherine. (She’s cast from the same mold as Sarah, the star of Harrison’s 2009 novella “The Farmer’s Daughter;” Harrison has a knack for identifying successful archetypes.) Catherine’s saga resembles the globetrotting arc of “Legends of the Fall”: She spends her formative years in London during World War II with her grandparents, who live out the Blitz “in a state of relentless fear”; later, she returns to Montana to run a family farm, yearning for “the old Montana of her childhood before so many rich people moved west.”
She prefers the company of chickens to men — more domestic animals! — but yearns for a baby. Her flock of hens, and their profligate egg-laying, reminds her of her childlessness. Like Harrison’s best work, “Eggs” effortlessly bridges decades; its delight lies in watching Catherine find, lose, and find herself again in the comfort of her land. “It seemed to her that her life was accelerating in a direction she had chosen,” Harrison writes, “but at a speed she couldn’t quite emotionally encompass.”
The speed of life has now swept Jim Harrison away in its current; may we all face our ends so gracefully. Harrison is too introspective to avoid obsessing about death, but his joie de vivre is too great to permit him to wallow in it. In The Ancient Minstrel, melancholy is swiftly banished by gastronomy. “It didn’t work to try to write about sex, doom, death, time, and the cosmos,” he opines, “when you were thinking about a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”
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