Review: Jim Harrison speaks — maybe — in 'The Ancient Minstrel'
By Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times Book Editor
Jim Harrison wrote a memoir years ago, "feeling poignantly the threat of death," he tells us in the author's note that opens The Ancient Minstrel.
"Time told another story and over fifteen years later I'm still not dead, a fine surprise for a poet who presumed he'd die young in a pile on the house floor, or perhaps near the usual fountain in Rome, or withering to nothing in a garret in Paris torturously located above a bistro so I could smell food I couldn't afford to buy."
Now, Harrison is 78, and despite the fine surprise of his robust survival the urge toward memoir has returned. His fiction — 20 splendid novels and novella collections — has long had autobiographical elements, but The Ancient Minstrel, the title novella in his new collection of three, seems more fact than fiction, as in this passage about losing his driver's license:
"Anyway, he had sent the governor an imprudent letter saying that he had written Legends of the Fall, his best-known book, and he needed to drive and explore new places in order to write and make a living. He couldn't very well sit home and write 'Legends of the Yard.' "
But Harrison, ever the trickster, insists in that author's note that this tale's aging novelist and poet, a laureate of lust and appetite and nature, who shares Harrison's bio from his missing left eye to his long marriage, isn't really him: "I decided to continue the memoir in the form of a novella. At this late date I couldn't bear to lapse into any delusions of reality in nonfiction."
Memoir in general has always been a pretty slippery genre, and whether the narrator of The Ancient Minstrel is the real Jim Harrison or some carefully constructed performance might just be a distinction without a difference.
Whoever he is, he tells a fine story. All three of these novellas traverse Harrison's familiar turf: the human relation to nature, how we live in it and consume it, how we believe we can rise above our natural urges and how often that makes us fools, and how nature's mortal effects on humans always win in the end.
The aging writer in The Ancient Minstrel is in a melancholy mood. He's fretting over his undeniable loss of interest in sex, which feels "like a resounding crack of doom. So much of his life since youth had been consumed thinking about women."
Even if he's not thinking about sex, he is still thinking about women, especially his wife, from whom he is separated after more than 50 years of marriage. He still sees her nearly every day; she's just too exasperated to live with him.
In a funk, he pulls into a favorite rural restaurant and sees in the back of a pickup "a massive Hampshire sow. He was startled because the sow looked just like Old Dolly, his grandfather's prime sow." Suddenly possessed by a forgotten childhood dream of raising pigs, he buys the sow, which is very pregnant, on the spot, telling its owner: "Give me three days. I've got to build a pen."
Since he has been banished to live in town, he builds the pen at his wife's place, which is in the country. She is even less thrilled with him than before. But he is happily caught up in a "pig trance," dubbing the sow Darling, watching over her as she gives birth to nine piglets, grieving when the runt of the litter dies a few days later, training one piglet to go for walks with him like a dog.
His adventures with the pigs form a comic throughline in the novella as Harrison meditates upon the joys (and occasionally the sorrows) of his long life.
One joy, of course, is literature. "He had read Keats at fourteen and the guillotine fell. He was no longer free but an addict of poetry. ... When he started writing prose too, at first it felt like he was committing adultery."
Another is the deep pleasures of cooking and eating, whether it's the pot roast he was seeking the day he bought that pig or the cuisine of chef Mario Batali (a Harrison friend).
For Harrison, food is inextricably linked to other pleasures like drink ("a modest 12-ounce glass of wine") and the process of catching your meal yourself: "Obviously so much of the pleasure of hunting and fishing came from where you were. You were utterly enveloped in the natural world. Sometimes when he was trout fishing his mind played the cello."
The story's coda meditates on the life of a writer and just what has let Harrison live it. The final line gains a sharp poignancy from the fact (not part of the novella) that Harrison's wife of 55 years, Linda, died last year.
The collection's second novella, Eggs, is the story of a girl named Catherine, growing up on her grandparents' Montana farm in the years before World War II. The product of a thoroughly disastrous marriage between an American father and an English mother, Catherine has an early fascination with not pigs but chickens — so much so that she's teased when she chooses to write a school report about them: "Anything is more dramatic and interesting than an ordinary chicken."
But Catherine's life, in Harrison's telling, will keep coming back to the idea of chickens, and eggs. When the girl is 11, she unwillingly accompanies her mother on a trip back to England — just in time for the Blitz. That horrific experience will be punctuated for Catherine by "the best supper of her life" when they visit the farm of relatives: "an enormous omelet" of freshly gathered eggs, something they haven't seen in London in months.
And the grownup Catherine will earn a degree at Barnard and travel, but finally end up back at that same Montana farm, thinking about eggs again as death and life form a slightly elongated circle.
The third novella, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, features Detective Sunderson, the main character in two earlier Harrison novels, The Great Leader and The Big Seven. Both of those books were riffs of a sort on the mystery novel, with Sunderson, a hard-drinking, horndog retired police detective, investigating weird cults and violently feuding families, among other things.
As its title suggests, Howling Buddhas involves another cult. Sunderson is employed by a deeply unpleasant local football star turned millionaire businessman to track down his daughter. It doesn't take the detective long to find her, living happily in the midst of a Zen Buddhist group whose leader, Sky Blast, teaches them to worship by imitating howler monkeys.
The Sunderson stories have all been over the top, but the comedy turns darker here. Sunderson is still struggling with the loss of Diane, his wife and the love of his life. She's still a friend, but she divorced him because he wouldn't give up police work and she couldn't bear his obsessive fascination with violence.
Deeply lonely, he has been spinning further and further out of control into drinking hard enough to make the reader woozy and affairs with ever-younger — as in young enough to get him in legal trouble — women.
Like so many of Harrison's characters, Sunderson finds solace in the natural world. The question in Howling Buddhas is whether it can save him.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
The Ancient Minstrel
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 255 pages, $25
c. 2016 Tampa Bay Times