HARUMPH: Cellphones are as hated by Harrison’s protagonist as female behinds are adored.
Jim Harrison’s fiction and essays are built from his particular blend of earthiness and erudition. He’ll quote Rilke, Neruda, Joyce, and other such heavyweights; he’ll also talk of less lofty passions: booze, food, hunting, fishing, dogs, long-distance driving, and naked women. He’ll ruminate on some philosophical conundrum or other, then bring you up short with a cockeyed laugh line.
|The English Major | By Jim Harrison | Grove Press | 268 pages | $24|
Harrison’s new comic road novel, The English Major, isn’t as ambitious as the novella collection Legends of the Fall (1979) and the novel Dalva (1988), the books that earned him literary renown. But it’s worth spending time with.
It opens with Cliff, 60, preparing to depart from the Northern Michigan farm he has worked since giving up teaching high-school English more than 25 years earlier. Cliff’s wife of 38 years, Vivian, a late-blooming real-estate shark, has recently divorced him. His beloved bird dog, Lola, has just died. Cliff decides to drive out to visit his and Vivian’s gay only child, Robert, in San Francisco. Before setting out, he finds a childhood memento in an old trunk, a child’s jigsaw puzzle of the lower 48 states. He brings it along and begins discarding the corresponding puzzle pieces for the states he passes through en route.
In Morris, Minnesota, Cliff is joined by a favorite former student, Marybelle, now 43, who wears him out with frequent acrobatic sex over the next few days but does little to set his soul right. Cliff writes approvingly, or disapprovingly, of virtually every meal he has on the trip, works in a little fly fishing with his alcoholic doctor friend in Montana, and pays Sylvia, a young woman with an exquisite derriere, $300 to let him sketch her nude. When Sylvia finally disrobes, Cliff nearly passes out from forgetting to breathe.
Female butts come up a lot. Cliff is told twice that male monkeys will give up lunch to view photos of female monkey butts. His son informs him that his response to Vivian’s worrying about having a big butt — telling her “there’s nothing wrong about a big butt” — showed how out of synch their marriage had become. “Once I tried to detox the butt situation by saying that her butt was only big because her mother’s butt was big,” Cliff elaborates. “That didn’t work.”
Cellphones are as hated by Cliff as female behinds are adored. Robert, Marybelle, and Vivian pester him so incessantly via one foisted on him by Robert that he flushes it down a toilet. Cellphones, it turns out, had been another source of friction between Cliff and his ex. “Her phone got to be a bone of contention in our marriage because she wouldn’t even turn it off when we were romantic,” he explains. “Her point was why miss a ten grand commission to fuck me the five thousandth time.”