For nearly forty years Jim Harrison has been one of America's most-beloved writers, a literary giant who has given us American classics like Dalva, Legends of the Fall, and The Road Home. And he is perhaps just as loved for the spirit from which he writes--devoted to the senses, staunchly unpretentious, and ever mindful of the dangers of straying too far from our origins. It is this spirit of which The Oregonian wrote, "The magic of writing as good as Harrison's is that it can bridge the gulf of human separation." Now, for the first time, Jim Harrison has put pen to paper to write about his own life--a life that he captures with a riveting directness and a delightful, resonant music.
In Off to the Side, Harrison writes about his upbringing in Michigan, the austerities of life amid the Depression and the Second World War, and the seemingly greater austerities of his starchy Swedish forebears, who have inspired so much of his writing. He traces his coming-of-age, from a boy drunk with books to a young man making his way among fellow writers he deeply admired--writers like Tom McGuane, Philip Caputo, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.
Harrison writes forthrightly about the life-changing experience of becoming a father, and the minor cognitive dissonance when this boy from the "heartland" somehow ended up a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter. He gives free rein to his "seven obsessions"--alcohol, France, stripping, hunting and fishing (and the dogs who have accompanied him in both), religion, the road, and our place in the natural world--which he elucidates with earthy wisdom and an elegant sense of connectedness. He returns always to his love of literature--from his first awakenings to the power of writing in his teens, and his youthful decision to model himself on Rimbaud, to how books have remained his center, sustaining him during the darkest times of his life. Above all, he delivers a joyful, meditative, candid, and wise book that is a paean to the complex delights of life.
The London Sunday Times has written that Jim Harrison is "a writer with immortality in him." Now, for the first time, the personal stories and unbridled enthusiasms that feed Harrison's magisterial fiction are available to his readers. Off to the Side is a work of great beauty and importance, a triumphant achievement that captures the writing life and brings us all clues for living.
"I'm not sure I'm particularly well equipped to tell the truth," writes Harrison. But with such a colorful life, there's not much need to tell lies. Bus boy, gardener, gourmand, novelist, screenwriter, drunkard-Harrison has done it all. Now add successful memoirist to that list. After a rugged outdoor childhood in Michigan, where an accident left him blind in one eye, Harrison moved to New York with vague ambitions to be a poet. Denise Levertov soon recognized his talent and launched Harrison on a literary career that eventually included teaching at SUNY Stony Brook, writing for GQ and Esquire, authoring several popular novels (The Road Home; Legends of the Fall) and writing Hollywood screenplays. Throughout, Harrison befriended an impressive gang of fellow free spirits: Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Buffett, Tom McGuane, among others. He swingingly recounts trout fishing with Richard Brautigan, bingeing with Orson Welles, arguing gay poetry with W.H. Auden and drinking with just about everybody. Alcoholism, Harrison writes, was his constant enemy, the writer's "black lung disease," as his friend McGuane once said. But he had other vices, too: strippers, cocaine, hunting, long walks in the woods by himself-all of which fed into Harrison's characteristic mix of freewheeling boho sensibilities and earthy western melancholy. A man as willing to shoot a grouse as trip on psychedelics-he claims to annually experience God-like visions and swears that he was once transformed into a wolf-Harrison is never less than intriguing. This fine memoir is a worthy capstone to a fascinating career.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 08, 2003
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Excerpt from Off to the Side by Jim Harrison
Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrison in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskegon River. When young we children were somewhat embarrassed to hear the story of our parents' probably feverish collision on a summer evening early in the Great Depression. The river has to slide past until we ourselves are in love and bent on mating with the scant ability to lift our eyelids high enough to see that it happens to nearly everyone. Norma was a very strong and somewhat irascible character and remained that way until her death at eighty-five. Winfield was obsessively hardworking, playful but melancholy. He must have been troubled at the time because he had worked his way through Michigan Agricultural College, graduating in 1932, but the convulsed economy only allowed him a job driving a beer truck and he was lucky to get that. I think I was twelve and we were trout fishing when he told me that I had nearly missed existing. One hot summer day on a hangover he had taken an after-lunch nap in the shade underneath the beer truck. His employer had driven by with a friend, seen his abandoned truck with its valuable cargo, and driven the truck off, a back tire slightly grazing my father's head.
A close call with nonexistence, a vaguely stimulating idea until I think of the nonexistence of my brothers and sisters and my children. At the time, though, of first hearing the story while driving home from the Pine River, it seemed part of the carelessness of adults similar to my uncles drinking a case of beer while fishing and falling off the dock into the lake at the cabin in a semi-stupor. My father's younger brothers, Walter and Arthur, had had a long and tough time in the South Pacific during World War II and their general behavior was never up to my mother's high standards. My father's side of the family was verbally witty and Walt and Artie's talk was full of sexual badinage, some of which puzzled me at the time. Of course their wives, Audrey and Barbara, were young and you could imagine how much passion got saved up during four years in the armed services on ships with thousands of other men all mooning for home.
For a boy forced to attend church and Sunday school every week there is the fuzzy paradox of Bible lessons not jibing with what he hears and sees. One part of him feels slightly priggish about the behavior of adults. Young people seem not to know that they are going to get old, but older people know that they are not going to become young again. And the other part of the boy is sunk in his growing knowledge of the natural world and farm life where the sexual lives of dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, and cows is an open book, not to speak of the tingly warmth he feels when there's a glance up a girl's skirt at school or when he sees by happenstance a lovely aunt's breast while she's squeezing in or out of a bathing suit at the cabin. I've always been a bit cynical about the existence of the Oedipus complex but having a number of attractive aunts can be tough and dreamy at the same time. Your sense of wrong and right is tenuous and you drift around in a goofy haze of instinctual curiosity with your hard little weenie an almost acceptable embarrassment. At the time I was amazed at my childhood friend David Kilmer, who would heroically pursue the quest. David was a doctor's son with an ample allowance and would bribe certain girls with a quarter for an inspection, or their somewhat retarded housemaid a couple of bucks for a peek. I recall he wasn't the least bit fixated, spending most of the time fishing, killing frogs and turtles, repairing an Evinrude outboard, riding his bike off a gangplank at the end of their long dock under the erroneous assumption that he would truly fly through the air. It was, however, my decision to quit looking at the photos of women in his father's medical books. A woman is included in the book only if something has gone "haywire," we agreed, and the photos weren't pretty.
There is a specific melancholy to hardship that accrues later as a collection of gestures, glances, and dire events. I don't remember anyone ever saying life is hard but it was hard to a child in other puzzling ways, say at Great-uncle Nelse's shack when we joined him in eating possum, beaver, and raccoon, and I asked my dad why Nelse
ate such strange things and he said, "He came up short on beef." I do remember Nelse embracing the keg of herring we bought him for Christmas, the salt brine soaking through the slats enough so that the wood was grainy with crystals to the touch. Nelse had been unhappily in love, rejected in his twenties, and retreated to the woods forever.