|The Sunday Gazette|
Arts & Entertainment
Author's memoir is tale of overcoming adversity|
Jim Harrison's memoir is a song of joy in the face of tough times. It is frustrating, yet witty and thoughtful.
The Michigan native is a poet, a novelist, an outdoor writer, a food writer and a screenwriter. The movies "Wolf," "Legends of the Fall" and "Revenge" are all based on Harrison's novels and novellas.
Harrison, who will appear at the New York State Writers Institute on Wednesday Oct. 30 offers something for every reader, for outdoor lovers and for movie and television fans.
"Off to the Side" is what Harrison believes is the "designated and comfortable position for a writer." When someone wishes to give a dinner for him, he writes, "I invariably turn it down. I like to go to dinner if I am off to the side . . . How can you observe the vagaries of human life if you are the target?"
The first section, "Early Life," describes Harrison's family and his youth in Michigan. The second section, "Seven Obsessions," is a mix of Harrison's past and present experiences with alcohol; sex; hunting, fishing and dogs; religion; food; travel and nature; and native peoples. The final section, "The Rest of Life," chronicles Harrison's life from college through assorted jobs and into his writing.
Unlike Harrison's novels and essays, this book has a frustrating structure. In a noticeable number of places, he repeats anecdotes. In several places, I had trouble following Harrison's life. For example, he describes his courtship and marriage to his wife, Linda, fairly early in the book. But then he sets aside this important part of his life for more than 100 pages while he discusses his seven obsessions.
Nevertheless, the book is compelling because of Harrison's story and his style of writing. Harrison's traumas would have killed others or caused them to abandon their dreams.
He overcame clinical depression at least seven times in his life. At age 7, Harrison lost the sight in his left eye when a neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in his face. He relived this experience 11 years later, when he spent his savings on unsuccessful, painful surgery, after a surgeon's bland assurance that Harrison would regain his sight.
At 21, Harrison's father and sister died when their car was hit head on, at 80 miles per hour, by a drunken driver. In his 30s, Harrison fell off a cliff, an event which landed him in traction. Despite these epic troubles, Harrison has found happiness throughout his life.
Harrison married early, yet he and Linda have stayed in love for over 40 years and he's proud of his daughters.
Dogs and life
The book is full of dogs, mostly hunting or ranch dogs, that he uses as foils for observations on life.
Once, a bistro owner in France asked Harrison to autograph a copy of a French translation of one of his novels. The owner asked if Harrison could make the dedication to his dog, Lanvin, a large chocolate Labrador. As Harrison and the owner talked, Lanvin appeared.
"Before greeting me, the dog . . .checked out the empty tables in the bistro for a stray snack, then came over and looked at me hopefully. A crust of anything would be better than a novel. The moment I didn't deliver, Lanvin slumped to the floor and slept."
Harrison wrote poetry late into the night, working as a book seller or construction worker by day. He had a wonderful moment where art, sport and work converged. While walking through a new school on a sales call to the librarian, he saw a man fly-casting in the hall. Harrison politely offered some advice. The fly-caster was the school superintendent and bought three collections of books.
Harrison started writing novels with a mind "like a sparsely attended restaurant where the service was always slow or downright bad."
With the help of friends and two fellowships, he completed his first novel, Wolf." He nearly lost it in transit; his brother, John, found the manuscript in a mountain of packages in the New Haven post office.
Harrison is leery of success. When a movie is finished, he writes, "you're not even hoping for something great, fine, or even real good. What you are hoping for is something well short of bad."
Of literature, he writes, "Literary ice is thin indeed and nearly everyone disappears in the same manner as a coal miner, a farmer, a disenchanted realtor."
Harrison is always near nature. He tracks wolves and bears. In one of his retreats, a garter snake lived in the stove. At his Michigan home, a great blue heron came up the walk, climbed the porch stairs and stared into the front door window.
This book is full of more people, places - particularly in France - and stories: Jimmy Buffett, Danny DeVito, Lauren Hutton, Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson.
Even if you are not interested in reading, writing, the outdoors or movies, this memoir is still required reading. Jim Harrison has taken his aspirations and talent, and, even in the depths of sadness, has gotten life just where he wants it.
Jim Harrison will hold an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. in the Standish Room of the library at the University of Albany Uptown Campus. At 8 p.m., he will speak and read from his work at Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center, also at the Uptown Campus.