As usual, I have a tall stack of books on my bedside table. And as usual, I daily attempt a few paragraphs in pursuit of discovering a new favorite writer or subject, or a character of some astonishment, or a fresh angle into the human heart…and yet, all-too-often, I find myself sneaking to the top left shelf of my book case where the Jim Harrison lives and pulling down a dog-eared, underlined, bath-bloated, roughed-up old friend.
I know of only one writer who can compose a novel (that the New Yorker, New York Times, and a future Pulitzer Prize winning author laud, hail, and honor), in which for the first hundred pages he mostly discusses his protagonist’s penis. And then…woven into the elegance of words like pecker, noodle, wanker, worm he threads NPR, bluebirds, a beloved dead dog, cherry farming, and describes a cell phone’s worth thusly: “It’s a prime weapon against our essential loneliness.” To me Jim Harrison is that one writer, and I love him for it.
Here’s the kind of thing he writes about when he’s not writing about penises.
“I’m sort of neutral in terms of religion, but ever since I was a kid I’ve thought moving water to be the best thing God made. Back in grade school when I started trout fishing with my dad, he told me that gods and spirits lived in creeks and rivers, information he got from his own father’s Chippewa buddy. I never doubted this one bit. Where else would they live?”
Oftentimes at my book signings people ask me what I like to read. Since I wrote a memoir, they expect to hear a list of memoirs. But I don’t really read memoirs. My heart belongs to fiction, and namely to one fiction writer. And that’s Jimmy H. I try to read all the usual suspects—to pack that stack with literary gems new and old. I try to widen my literary garden path, but I can’t see for all the Russell Chatham bedecked blossoms lining my top left bookshelf.
Harrison’s written over twenty-five books: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I own pretty much all of them. One of his poems hangs in a framed lithograph over my bed. I have a file on my computer called Jimmy that has as many unsent letters as he’s published books. He has a ranch in a town I frequent in Montana and as locals like to talk, I’ve had to take my hand out of that candy jar more times than one. It would be torture knowing where he lives. I don’t trust myself one bit with that piece of knowledge. He does NOT need me camping out at the end of his road with twenty-five books to sign and twenty-five letters to deliver and twenty-five bottles of Domaine Tempier Bandol or Barolo or even one ’49 Latour, ’61 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, or ’47 Meursault– not that I know what his favorite wine is or anything or make enough money to indulge in this, okay, yes: fantasy. Or what kind of cigarettes he smokes. Or what D.H. Lawrence quote is taped on his writing desk. It’s not like I’ve been paying attention to the fine-tuned details of Jim Harrison’s existence. Or anything.
But a few years ago, I finally had the guts to write and send a letter via his publisher, thanking him for profoundly impacting my life as a writer. And I heard back from him. Which lead to a beer at a bar in a small town in Arizona where he spends winters. Which lead to one of the greatest honors of my life: my first published book is held in the palms of two of his poems.
I’m not really sure what it is about his writing that I so love. Maybe it’s that I discovered it when I was seventeen and was the first time I so related with something on the page that I thought I quite possibly had novels in me. Maybe it’s that there’s so much walking in the woods at night and so much about the Midwest and Montana, the two places that I have most prominently called home. Or that there’s usually delicious gout-giving food being cooked in a cabin somewhere and stellar French wine being consumed by people who use words that I’ve never heard of and then in the next breath swear, so that I’m simultaneously chuckling naughtily and grabbing the dictionary. There’s no one who can have me, in the course of a paragraph, craving a steak and jotting down dropped names like John Dos Passos and Hart Crane with a note: Look up. And heck, maybe I would know these literary heroes of his if he’d stop banging out book after book. But then again, I’ve read his novel Dalva eight times, so maybe it’s a hopeless cause.
How does he get away with this sort of thing, for instance: “I sat on numerous beaches and stared at oceans until it was an ocean inside my head” right up alongside: “She could fuck the balls off a cast iron monkey.” ???
Here are a few of his accolades for playing the hand of cards he does on every page (aces, jokers, and everything in-between): National Academy of Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountain & Plains Booksellers Association, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s been compared to Hemingway and Faulkner. Let’s be honest: Harrison is a living legend. And I got to have a beer with him. All because of a letter and some guts.
When I met Harrison at his local watering hole in Arizona (will remain nameless lest it turn into the next Harry’s Bar) he walked in and said in a voice only he could pull off, the most magical words I’ve heard outside of ten fingers ten toes and book deal: “Where’s the writer from Montana?” My heart almost fell out of my mouth and into the bar ice. “Here I am…Jim.” I have never been more nervous and excited in my life, forget national television.
I was with my husband and children on a camping trip and I’d given them a speech beforehand that went a little something like this: “Introduce yourselves to him and then leave us the hell alone.” A lot of people take their kids to Miley Cyrus concerts. I took them to a bar on the Mexican border to meet Jim Harrison. (They just can’t read much of his work for another six to ten years…unless they’re in the market for new ways to refer to the male genital member or can handle the tragic beauty of this sort of thing: “Probably because of childhood books, I’ve always thought of other creatures as brothers and sisters. When Lola (his protagonist’s dog) died, the sobs that emerged from behind my sternum expelled themselves properly as a bark.”
Of course the three photos I have of us (which are on my writing desk) display me with either my eyes closed or Jim mostly in the shade. I find that this is often the result when you want something too much. And truth be told, I can’t even remember much of what we talked about. I think he said that Fellini, Orson Wells, and John Houston used to fake heart attacks at restaurants to get out of paying the bill. I think we talked about claustrophobia in airplanes. I know we talked about bird watching, namely the Elegant Trogon.
When we were done with our beers, I asked where to go for dinner knowing what a foodie he is, and he recommended a tiny restaurant across the border in Nogales, an hour away, called Las Vigas. He drew out directions on the back of a book of checks I dug up out of my purse, after he made a comment about me being a writer and not having a pad of paper on me. (Not that he had one on him!) I had been picking my cuticles and I passed him the bloodied paper, which I still have, on my desk, in a frame—directions I devotedly followed like a treasure map, even though we had to drive the camper a long ways in the dark and into Mexico all to eat the dried beef dish Harrison raved about, Machaca Sonorenses. (which was stunningly deelish, por supuesto.) My husband and kids knew not to complain. They knew I was on a pilgrimage. They knew that it’s important to reward guts in the people you love. And that it must have been one heck of a letter (which it was).
This is perhaps all to say, that you might just write and even send that letter to the writer (person) who has inspired you most. You just never know. You might end up having one of the best dinners of your life, with a tear in your eye.