Jim Harrison’s “English Major”

Too many years ago to count, I won the Loft’s Mentor Series as a poet. Over the course of nine months, we were guided by perhaps six mentors, among them the poet and novelist Jim Harrison. I was recently divorced and gun-shy of men with aplomb and swagger. Not that Harrison was intimidating–far from it. He was friendly, with a gruff, pleasant voice, and seemed to enjoy our company. I remember walking down the street beside him, very aware of his physical presence. That was as close as we came. His subject matter–lakes and streams, critters, American men out of doors–was almost completely different than my focus on the visual arts and motherhood. He had nothing to teach me. Or so I thought.

One of our Christmas cards this year came from a fan of Harrison’s, a fiction-writing poet like Harrison. Her card was a reproduction of a Harrison poem about a bear. Glued beside it appeared to be a bit of bear skin, with the fur/hair attached. Then, folded around the card was a letter explaining how she’d looked for bear, found an aged skin which fell apart when she tried to cut into it, and eventually settled for buffalo. Her appreciation for Harrison was palpable, and her story of settling for the critter she could make work, amused me so much that I called to tell her how one of our cats had appropriated the card and was batting it around the downstairs. We had a good chuckle.

This was the open door I evidently needed because the next group of audio books I borrowed from the library included Harrison’s “The English Major.” The reader had a gravelly male voice with a Western twang. It was the voice of the main character, Cliff, who had just been divorced by his Coke-swilling and powdered-donut eating wife, had his farm sold out from under him and lost his beloved dog. So untethered was he, that he set out on a quest to visit each of the contiguous U.S. states, with a jigsaw puzzle of the states to keep him company.

He took to the road in Michigan, crossed Wisconsin (rather familiar territory), then took a serious emotional detour in Minnesota when he hooked up with a former student who’d written him over the years as “my best instructor ever.” Marybel was Lolita untethered. And Cliff? I had a lot to learn about how a bruised male ego digs in as if there is no tomorrow. I was, to put it mildly, out of my depth. Did male writers really indulge in such raunchy sex talk? How much of the story was going to go on like this?

Turns out there was a lot more to Cliff than a starving appetite. He was a bird watcher and fly fisherman and especially in Montana, his fly fishing attained the grace of a bull fight. Rocky and watery, enigmatic and satisfying, and the telling outperformed sex with Marybel by megawatts.  By this time, I began to get a whiff of what my friend found to admire in Jim Harrison’s fiction.

It’s entertaining, I discovered, to view American women my age through the eyes of a sensitive but macho American guy. It was curious to hear him decide to rename the states from their early Native American inhabitants. It was a relief to find him eventually returned to a kind of farm, a sort of dog, , and a wife who didn’t wound his psyche with every word. The story has a sort of happy ending. It also accumulates power and interest as it goes, which is almost all we writers can hope for–keeping them reading all the way to the end.

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