I hadn’t read anything by author Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall, Wolf) in a long time and none of his writing had crossed my mind in years. But, for some strange reason, a few weeks ago – on March 25th to be precise – I had a passing thought that Harrison might not be long for this world.
Then, there it was in the news the next day. He had just died of a heart attack at the age of 78, literally writing until the end. Reportedly, he was found at his desk with a pen in his hand and his final written words devolving into a run-off scribble as he breathed his last breath.
Sometimes unexplainable synchronicities happen like that – why did I have a premonition of Harrison’s death? It’s not like I had some special connection to him, and many other authors have touched my consciousness more than him. But then, I suppose his writing did have a strong effect on me when I first discovered it. I had originally thought I came to it through the 1994 Brad Pitt film Legends of the Fall, which was based on a Harrison novella. That would place me in my mid 20’s though, and part of me is sure I was reading his books in my mid teens.
Harrison was a man of extremes, both in his life and writing. Nature, food and sex were the main obsessions in his work – in varying degrees of importance, depending on which work it was. I wasn’t on board with everything he wrote, but his writing was almost always provocative and of high quality. A grizzled bear of a man, he was a poet (he said he only starting writing fiction because he couldn’t make a living as a poet), a hunter and fisher, a ballet lover, a bird-watcher, a drinker, a gourmet, a womanizer, and a teacher, among other things. His most recent novella collection, The Ancient Minstrel, contained the thinly-disguised-as-fiction memoir title story. In it, he cries at the death of a piglet he’s raising, yet he sells the piglet’s siblings to be butchered. A man of contradictions indeed (though he probably wouldn’t see it that way). “Now that he had raised pigs, the only consequential fantasy of his youth left to him was to live in France”, he writes as he takes stock of his life.
In the early 70s Harrison had fallen in with a rowdy, fun-loving, artistic bunch including Jimmy Buffett, authors Tom McGuane and Richard Brautigan, painter Russell Chatham (whose impressionistic nature scenes adorn most of Harrison’s book covers), and writer and documentary director Guy de la Valdene. Dividing their time mainly between Montana and Key West, the trail of stories they left behind is legendary. Buffett recalls some of them in the eulogy he wrote for Harrison [read McGuane’s reflection on Harrison’s death].
It was Harrison’s 1971 road trip novel A Good Day to Die that I read after Legends of the Fall. It’s a profane, crazy, entertaining account of an unlikely trio who drive from Florida to the Grand Canyon with plans to buy some dynamite and save the Canyon from a dam about to be built. A bit like Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Of all his books, A Good Day to Die probably has the most references to music. Harrison didn’t write about music much, but when he did it was evocative. I remember being struck by the way one could work music into a story that wasn’t about music. At the time, I hadn’t read much other fiction that really attempted to do that. Skimming through the book now, all these years later, I really like this passage on how music can change the way one feels, and can affect mood so intensely:
In biographical entries, and now obituaries on Harrison, you’ll often see mentioned that he “lost the sight in one eye due to a childhood accident.” It was no accident – at age 7 a young girl he was playing with jabbed a broken bottle in his eye, on purpose. It was a moment of violence that prefigured his future art to some degree. His writing and his life seemed a balancing act – sometimes tipping one way and sometimes the other – between violence and peace, darkness and light. It was this juxtaposition that made his writing very human and honest. The juxtaposition of “The Raw and the Cooked” , as the title of one of his non-fiction collections of food writing was titled. Not too dissimilar from fellow author Harry Crews or musician John Martyn – all imposing, multi-layered personalities with big appetites for life.
Further reading: Jim Harrison: Mozart of the Prairie, by Terry McDonell (The New Yorker, March 30, 2016)