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FICTION: Better Off Without a Wife

Jim Harrison, The English Major (Grove, 2008)

According to a recent interview with Jim Harrison published in the New York Times, the author writes more novels than his current publisher knows what to do with. The latest, The English Major, was penned while his last book was under editing. His subjects are simple and continuous throughout most of his work, and tension is developed through the protagonists’ self-exploration: hunting and fishing vs. literature, solitude vs. friendship and romance, and being old-fashioned in a fast new world. And always food; food and lust. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, his themes center on the flesh more than the spiritual, and he tells his stories with a straightforward candor that puts the reader directly across from him at a table in a middle-American diner. Sometimes considered a regional author of the upper Midwest (though he and his wife now divide their time between Montana and Arizona, two places that comprise much of the latest book’s setting), his books have a national appeal because they are quintessentially American.

The English Major begins fast and furious; Cliff, the protagonist, comes right to the point like a guy with something to get off his chest. He is a simple man with a deep emotional core and some grieving to overcome, because at 60 years old his wife of 38 years has just left him for a crush from high-school days, not to mention sold his farm and skimmed off his retirement share. Plus his dog died, and he feared he’d dispatched her himself with his truck’s rear tire. But he’s already feeling better, because a neighbor showed him evidence that the dog died on her own, and also he’s recently come across an old jigsaw puzzle of the United States, which gives him the idea to get on the road and see the whole country for the first time. What follows is a chronicle of self-examination along with a good bit of heartache and adventure.

Cliff recalls the central character of Farmer, Harrison’s 1976 novel about an English teacher named Joseph who inherited a farm that he’s kept fallow while pursuing other diversions. Aside from long excursions into the woods, Joseph has a rich affair with a 17-year-old student who awakens his deepest lust and eventually sends him back to his widowed lover and life-long love. Cliff, who once taught high school classes before tending full-time to the farm, is almost 20 years older than Joseph, is in many ways the same man but no longer holds all the cards to his fate. But spurred by the jigsaw puzzle and the new reality of no home, he makes use of what he has, and discovers potential for his own sexual rejuvenation with a former student, now in her forties, with whom he’d always been smitten.

The sex is first described with great satisfaction and then fatigue and disinterest. Cliff is a man who has been rendered alone, and wants to feel that way. He becomes dedicated to a project of renaming all of the country’s states, and also attempts to rename every state bird and flower, a calling to which he begins to think of himself as an artist, and delves further into the way he’d seen his literary heroes as an English student at Michigan State. He even hires a waitress in Montana to pose nude for him under the pretense that he would sketch her. There is an obvious amount of poking fun here, and Harrison referred to this novel in last year’s Times profile as an illustration of “all those preposterous people who major in English,” but the continuity of character traits from past works and the alignment of interests and passions with the author’s own (gourmandizing, the outdoors, laments on the nation’s direction) suggests something deeper and closer to home.


David Varno

DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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