R.I.P.: Jim Harrison, Pt. Two

Tom McGuane discovered Livingston, MT for the modern litrary world when he moved there in the late ’60s. (He also helped Hollywood discover the town when Rancho Deluxe — screenplay by McGuane — was filmed there in 1973.) Still, even at his wiggiest — Bushwhacked Piano and Ninety-Two in the Shade (got to salute the line-by-line prose in this last one) — McGuane too controlled for me, bit too screwed-down tight. I prefer his buddies William “Gatz” Hjortsberg — who’s funnier and a more natural surrealist — and Jim Harrison — who’s crazier and a more convincing sensualist.

I dug into both McGuane and Harrison in 1973, through brand-new paperbacks of Ninety-Two and Harrison’s Good Day To Die. After Ninety-Two I never doubted McGuane would be a serious literary figure for the foreseeable future. But after Good Day to Die, I had to pick up the blown-apart pieces of me from all over the house. And it was a dam that was supposed to go boom.

(As a side note, I’ve never understood why Good Day has never gotten credit as the founding novel of eco-terrorism — came out two years before The Monkey-Wrench Gang, a book I’ve never been able to finish. I know, I know, the dam-blasting is almost a delusional afterthought for much of the book. But still.)

Along with Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, I name Good Day To Die as the immolation novels of Beat/Counterculture/Viet Nam fiction — domestic nonconformity and derangement and international catastrophe and chaos come home to squat on the roof. Good Day is almost a prose poem and both books have oddly ambiguous, unfinished endings. Very appropriate. The moods and moments they recount have never been resolved in America, much to everyone’s detriment.

Those were the years I was beginning to pull away from Livingston (it was a place to go after you’d had decades of adventures, not settle in where you were born and grew up) and Montana in general (if I stayed I would become a barfly, not a writer). So I tracked the literary figures more casually. Legends of the Fall was unavoidable, of course, and I relished it. But … for reasons I’ve never quite understood, by the end of the ’70s, fiction was not able to get inside me the way it once had and I found I admired Legends whereas I loved Good Day. Yeah, mature voice. Yeah, more character nuance. Yeah, broader scope. Yeah …

Standout part of Harrison’s Times obit is that precise and on-target observation that despite the too-easy comparisons, he did not write like ol’ Papa:

… Mr. Harrison was chronically, and to his unrelieved disgust, compared to one man.

In fact, his prose is nothing like Hemingway’s: It is jazzier, more lyrical and more darkly comic. His characters, more marginal and far less self-assured — many abandon jobs and families to light out in search of meaning they never find — are handled with greater tenderness.

I was pleased Harrison continued on as a star in Europe and a writers’ writer here. Glad he wrote about food gloriously enough to attract Anthony Bourdain to do a TV show about him and Livingston that was probably better for the place than Rancho Deluxe and Missouri Breaks combined (not A River Runs Through It, though).

Saddened me to discover through an interview about his recent book The Ancient Minstrel, that his wife of 50 years had passed away last fall. A shadow crossed my mind. The stress of being alone after 30 years with someone, let alone 50, is enough to drain even the most resilient, valiant soul. I wondered at that moment if his time was short.

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