"The English Major": Cathartic cross-country trek finds novelist back on track
In "The English Major," master novelist Jim Harrison exercises his knack for creating delightful characters in a story about a small-town Michigan teacher cut adrift when his wife dumps him, sending him on the road in search of a new life and better names for birds.
Special to The Seattle Times
"The English Major"
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 305 pp., $24
In more than a dozen books of fiction, Jim Harrison has earned a reputation for delightful, offbeat characters and outlandish plots. In his last two novels, however, the author took a marked turn toward gravity. "True North" (2004) explored the dehumanizing nature of violence and its generational legacies. Last year's "Returning to Earth" was a moving meditation on death and personal redemption.
With "The English Major," the old Harrison is back.
Cliff, a former teacher and small-town Michigan farmer, is stuck in an unhappy marriage. His only soul mate is his dog, Lola, who dies in the book's opening pages.
Things take a decided turn for the worse when Cliff's wife, Vivian, goes for a ride with a former boyfriend at their 40th high-school reunion and returns with grass-stained knees. Cliff knew the marriage had finally gone bust. "The school reunion had blasted my life apart with the power of a Shiite car bomb," he later muses, "and my errant thoughts told me there were pieces that still needed to be rejoined."
Cliff at 60 is, as one friend puts it, "a raccoon who has been treed by the hounds of life." After a six-month drinking binge and brief fling with a waitress in town, the farm is sold out beneath him (Vivian is a shrewd real-estate broker), and Cliff hits the road.
Harrison delights in the unlikely errand compounded by the heroic gesture, and Cliff's cross-country quest is driven by a hapless desire to rename the states — along with all the state birds. "Nature is heraldic," Cliff observes, "and birds simply don't deserve the banal names we've given them." Thus the Brown Thrasher becomes "Beige Dolorosa"; the Western Tanager is renamed "Firebird" (after Stravinsky).
Armed with a jigsaw puzzle of the states, with which he spent hours with his younger brother, a Down syndrome boy who drowned at 11, Cliff ventures forth into untold, late-life adventures. And here Harrison spins the common chaff of a road trip into gold.
Early on, Cliff can't seem to see beyond his life as a farmer. He keeps a journal, photographs old farms, and reads the rural landscape by the breed and condition of its cattle.
Things change dramatically when he reconnects with a former student and plunges headlong into a manic, several-state romp through sensuality. Marybelle is clearly more than Cliff can handle. ("Forty-five years of sex fantasy come true and I'm thinking that I wish I could go fishing.") When he finally visits his son, a movie producer in San Francisco, Cliff's world has been tipped on edge.
Harrison's rambling narrative is peppered with his characteristic insights and asides. Of some city folk who buy a neighboring farm: "They were that new kind of Democrat that didn't seem to know any working people." On the perils of the writing craft: "Alcohol was the writer's black lung disease." And on aging: "The bookstore had a number of attractive clerks who didn't make eye contact with me but looked just above my hairline reminding me again of my safe place in the biological dumpster."
Biological dumpster, perhaps. But after a long and idiosyncratic literary career, Harrison the storyteller is still at the top of his game.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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