Jim Harrison’s death on March 26, 2016 at the age of 78 removes a sparkling light from the literary world. Harrison’s fiction celebrated pleasure, often including the joys to be found in nature, dogs, food, and sex. At the same time, his characters were typically befuddled by a world they could not quite grasp. They were mixed bags of pessimism and optimism, wisdom and foolishness, virtue and vice. They were deeply wounded by life’s injustices, including failed relationships and the deaths of friends and pets, and they were prone to self-inflicted wounds. Sometimes the characters learned lessons, sometimes they failed to learn anything, but the lessons were always there to benefit the reader.
Because it was made into a movie, Harrison is best known for the novella Legends of the Fall. Novellas were, in fact, a form at which Harrison excelled. His last book to see publication before his death, The Ancient Minstrel, collects three excellent novellas. The book proves that even in the last years of his life, Harrison never lost his creative spark or his wry sense of humor.
Fittingly, a novella included in The Ancient Minstrel brings to a close the story of Sunderson, a recurring character in Harrison’s fiction. Sunderson was a misbehaving horndog who, despite his attraction to teenage girls and his perpetual ability to disappoint himself, followed an internal code of decency and honor that give actual meaning to those terms in ways that most fictional heroes don’t really understand.
Sunderson is the kind of aging male character that Harrison did so well. Harrison might be the most insightful analyst of the older male mind that the literary world has produced.
Like many of Harrison’s characters, Sunderson loved to fish. Harrison, like his characters, preferred the country to the city. He attributed his appreciation of the natural world to having lost his left eye when he was a child. Many of his stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or in Montana, Arizona, and other places where the night sky is clear. Despite those settings, Harrison did not glorify rural residents. In one of his last novellas, he made a point of lampooning writers who depict country folk as noble yokels. His characters were simply people who happened to enjoy nature and quiet lives, with all the complexity but not so much pretension as city dwellers.
Harrison had a literary style that was all his own. He was no friend of the comma. His prose was folksy without ever losing its elegance. Harrison wrote poetry, screenplays, and nonfiction (which tended to focus on food) in addition to novels and novellas.
Harrison’s obituary in The Washington Post gives a good overview of his life and work.
The Wikipedia bibliography of Harrison’s work is the most complete that I’ve found.
The Jim Harrison books reviewed on Tzer Island are:
The Great Leader (2011) is a Sunderson novel. Sunderson retires from his job as a police detective, travels to Arizona to investigate “the crime of religion,” and has (or fantasizes about) sex with a variety of women. Harrison makes pithy observations about a number of topics, including sex and religion, but also money, divorce, and retirement. Harrison’s willingness to skewer conventional thought in The Great Leader is priceless, provided you aren’t wedded to conventional thought.
The River Swimmer (2013) contains two novellas. “The Land of Unlikeness” features a typical Harrison character, an aging male who still hasn’t gotten his life together. Balancing missed opportunities and mild regrets with cautious optimism, the man moves forward to the unknown, ready to face the challenges and rewards of his life’s last phase. The second novella, one of Harrison’s best, is about a man who swims the hundred miles from Muskegon to Chicago. Unlike the protagonist in the first story, the young man in the second story has most of his life ahead of him. The lesson he learns is that life can’t be planned, a recurring theme in Harrison’s work.
The Big Seven (2015) is another Sunderson novel. While pursuing a “faux mystery” involving a number of deaths within a family, Sunderson sets an “all-around record for sloppy behavior.” Most of the sloppiness involves women, teenage girls, and alcohol. The novel’s meandering plot emphasizes the randomness of life and the unexpected adventures that are waiting to please or plague people who get off their butts and go fishing (actually or metaphorically).
The Ancient Minstrel (2016) collects three novellas. “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” brings Sunderson’s story to a surprising conclusion. “Eggs” follows a woman from her childhood to World War II London to Palm Beach to the Montana farm where she indulges her lifelong fascination with chickens. The protagonist of “The Ancient Minstrel” is a 70-year-old writer of novels, novellas, poetry, and screenplays. To the extent that the story might be autobiographical, it never shies away from Harrison’s portrayal of aging men as faintly ridiculous creatures who have a lot to learn.