I'm always saddened by the deaths of writers whose work I admire. But the death of Jim Harrison felt to me like a force of nature going out of the world.
One of America's finest writers, Harrison, 78, died on March 26 at his winter home in the tiny Southern Arizona town of Patagonia. Best known for his novella Legends of the Fall, which became the 1994 epic Western film starring Brad Pitt, Harrison was prodigiously productive, publishing 39 books of poetry, fiction, memoir and essays in a career that spanned more than 50 years.
Only a month ago, I reviewed his latest book, The Ancient Minstrel. Its title novella is, maybe, a bit of memoir, although he tells the reader it's fiction. Its narrator's voice, though, sounds like Harrison's own — rambling, lyrical, wryly funny, sharply observant and irresistible.
One reason I felt Harrison's loss so sharply is that I've met him several times. I've met more writers than I can count, liked most of them and been impressed by many. But Harrison's peculiar charisma was off the charts.
I first met him in 1994, when I was a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. I drove down through the desert one morning to Patagonia to interview him at home, passing through the gate with the sign that said "Beware American Champ Pit Bull Black Savage." (The only dog in residence was Harrison's bird dog, a sweet and elegant English setter named Tess.)
The interview turned into a day and part of an evening of him driving me around the surrounding ranchland and mountainsides. (Harrison lost his left eye in a childhood accident, and I was a little nervous on the high-altitude switchback turns when he wandered near the edge of the road.)
We visited a neighbor's new horse and lunched at a cowboy diner, with me listening raptly as he spun story after story about everything from his adventures as a Hollywood screenwriter to his study of Zen Buddhism, from his favorite Pomerol from Bordeaux to whether there really were jaguars living in the mountains near his house. (He hoped so, and said he had seen their tracks.)
When he told me a long, detailed story about once having attended a Chippewa ceremony in which a man turned into a bear, in the moment I absolutely believed it. In fact, I wondered if Harrison just might turn into one himself.
It might not have taken much. Harrison was built like a barrel with legs, and he spoke in a deep rich rumble, graveled by oceans of alcohol and endless cigarettes, that sounded a little like a bear's growl. His unruly gray hair and beard and rumpled wardrobe gave him the aspect of not just an unmade bed but one in which exuberant bawdiness had occurred just moments ago. Yet he often signed books in a precise and elegant copperplate hand that would do credit to a Victorian gentleman.
He was a man of contrasts — a name dropper of epic proportions (his friends included Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Buffett, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain, Peter Mathiessen and Thomas McGuane) who could quote Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke from memory, and talk about opera and flyfishing in the same sentence.
And, as spectacular as his storytelling was in person, it was even better, more finely crafted, on the page. His fiction often drew comparisons to Faulkner's, which pleased him, and to Hemingway's, which irritated him to no end. Rightly so, since Harrison was more lyrical, much funnier and more comfortable in his own skin than Hemingway ever was. Plus, Harrison could write well and believably about female characters.
Harrison's favorite subjects included the world of nature, food and drink, sex, violence and family relationships. But he also wrote often, and unflinchingly, about death, especially in recent years. Many of his later novels are elegaic, like the moving Returning to Earth. The subject must have become keener for him with the death in October of Linda King Harrison, his wife of more than 55 years and longtime muse. During that long-ago interview, when I asked, like a good reporter, "What does your wife do?" he squinted at me with his single eye and said, "She's Linda."
If you've read Harrison's books, you'll understand my sense of loss. If you haven't, you should. Read his fine novellas, in the collections The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Julip, Legends of the Fall and all the rest. Read his wonderful memoir, Off to the Side, and his marvelous collected columns about food, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. Read his own favorite among his novels, the tragic Dalva (based in part on his wife's family history, as was Legends of the Fall). And read Brown Dog, the collection of five novellas about his most lovable, lusty, big-hearted comic hero. (Brown Dog, Harrison told me, was his own nickname.)
I can't help but hope that there might be more. Morgan Entrekin, publisher and CEO of Grove Atlantic, which published Harrison's fiction for more than 30 years, said of the author in an email, "His voice came from the American heartland and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work." Spokeswoman Deb Seager wrote that decisions about future publication of Harrison's work will be made "shortly."
Although he's best known as a novelist, Harrison thought of himself first and foremost as a poet. The story goes that he only undertook fiction after a fall off a cliff during a fishing trip left him mostly immobilized in a back brace and McGuane urged him to write a novel.
Much gratitude to McGuane for that. But Harrison continued to practice poetry as religiously as he did anything, publishing 14 collections of poems, the most recent, Dead Man's Float, in January.
Another of Harrison's friends, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned author Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), was called to Harrison's little adobe house on Sonoita Creek by the friends who discovered his body. Caputo and his wife, who also live in Arizona, came to bid him farewell. In a Facebook post, Caputo wrote:
"We found him on the floor of his study, where he'd fallen from his chair, apparently from a heart attack. He'd died a poet's death, literally with a pen in his hand, while writing a new poem."
I hope we get to read that poem. And somewhere, I hope, a bear is walking with a jaguar, telling stories in a deep rich rumble.
Read a 2013 interview with Jim Harrison at tbtim.es/ygc. Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.