Jim Harrison: Novelist, Poet, Essayist (1938 – 2016)–A Love Story, Part I

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I found out today that one of my all time favorite authors, Jim Harrison, died yesterday. I discovered him at a time when I was beginning to develop a taste for literary fiction, sometime in college. I had grown up on comic books, whatever passed for young adult fiction at my school library, and a ton of mass market paperbacks, which I shopped for from spinning book racks in grocery and drugstores, where the choices were limited. My tastes ran to action, particularly anything to do with the west or WWII.  There were a few lucky finds (Catch 22, Mountain ManSerpico, M*A*S*H, Das Boot, When the Legends Die, and of course, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, among others) and a lot of crap. This was in the 1970s, when paperbacks sold for two or three dollars, manageable on paper route and Burger King money.

Even in college, I had a rule where I only read for recreation between semesters or on summer break, but I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was an English major, who turned me on to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway. As I got a taste of these authors, I grew hungry for more substantial reading, and so I turned to Trade Paperbacks, a significant investment since it more than doubled and most often tripled the cost of books, but publishers like Dell and Bantam were introducing new, cutting edge authors, and by then I was working factory jobs in the summers and then moved on to a salary when I graduated. I began to haunt the  bookstores like B.Dalton, focusing on the Trades.

I remember finding Legends of the Fall in a shoe box sized bookstore in a tiny mall in Tupelo, Mississippi, one summer while I was working a second shift on an assembly line making light fixtures. At the time I did my reading late at night, or in the late mornings and early afternoons before going in to the plant to sweat over the line.  The book is a collection of 3 novellas. The first, Revenge, told the story of a retired air force pilot who befriends a Mexican gang lord, falls in love with his wife and has an affair, and when discovered, is beaten and left for dead in the Mexican desert. Discovered by a peasant who delivers him to a missionary who is also a doctor, the novella traces the path for revenge on the drug lord, as well as the quest to reunite with the woman he fell in love with. The story is gritty and violent, and beautifully written. Among other things, it opened my eyes to Mexico and fueled a burgeoning love (first ignited by Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire) for Southwestern deserts.

The title piece of the collection, Legends of the Fall, opens memorably:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of the silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Often described at Hemingwayesque, mistakenly, in reviews, Harrison’s writing was lyrical in style and mythical in scope. I fell in love, and I’ve been reading him ever since. Harrison is one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer. After Legends of the Fall, I went back and picked up Wolf, A Good Day to Die, and Farmer, and I’ve been collecting and reading him ever since. With over 21 volumes of fiction and a half dozen or more collections of poetry, there was a lot to read. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of the better pieces I’ve found, and hope others will find him as well.

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