Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
The Gourmet Neandertal. The French call him the Mozart of the Prairie.
Jim Harrison, Michigan native, died in Arizona a few months back.
He’s all about appetite and humanity under its veneer. “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” (From The Beast God Forgot to Invent) You can gape in wonder or rage at his characters’ decisions (practically ZERO impulse control for many), but never at how they feel: always real, always raw. It’s eating, drinking, fucking, crying – in the woods, a cold stream, a cheap motel room, a family cabin – there’s your Jim Harrison verbs and settings. And the food; he’s the Anthony Bourdain of modern fiction. He’s occasionally accused of being sloppy with his prose, but in his case that’s like saying a forest is disorganized because the trees don’t grow in rows. Jim Dog is a beast and will not be tamed.
The feel I get from Harrison can be found in a line from Sundog, “With the Catholic, the question of whether that little girl actually saw anything at the site of Lourdes ought to be meaningless. You can actually see your foot every day, but that’s not what keeps you going. Any metaphor between us and a river is that we can’t stop ourselves one bit.”
Here’s a great little interview from Tom Bissell at Outside magazine that will give you an idea of the man, at least late in life.
Some of his work is repetitive, which he can be forgiven for since he’s been active since the 60s. Here are your essentials, and following, everything else.
Harrison was a poet first, novelist second.
The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems is probably the place to start as it includes earlier work up to 1998, much of which had fallen out of print.
Legends of the Fall
This is not an essential because it’s famous; it’s essential (and famous) because it’s damn good. Three novellas make up this book, including the eponymous one that became a movie. Starting there, it’s pretty epic, especially for a novella, and easy to see why it was tapped for a film. It’s the story of a Montana family, focusing on one of its three sons and his wild adventures around the world from WWI thru prohibition. It’s got that customary Jim Harrison romance and grittiness. Ditto “Revenge”, a story about an ex-military guy who gets mixed up with the Mexican underworld and fights against odds to avenge his lover. “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” follows the disillusionment of a successful business man as he hacks his way towards a meaningful existence thru the wreckage of his exhausted worldview. There’s not much humor in these stories, but they show good range and are full of surprises.
One of his most acclaimed novels, it centers on the titular character, an adventurous Midwesterner, wrestling with her family history and her place in the world as she settles into middle age. Sounds pretty cookie-cutter for “literary fiction”, but it takes some rattling turns along the way. Mostly told from Dalva’s perspective (it’s very much her story), you also spend some time in the head of her “it’s complicated” boyfriend, and the fascinating journals of her ancestor, where you’ll learn something about the Old West and the Native American experience. For my money, the bits about the un-movie-like Old West alone are worth the read. And there’s a pretty killer doozy from that material towards the end.
The Woman Lit by Fireflies
This is one of the better novella collections. The first Brown Dog story is here, in which BD simultaneously protects a Chippewa burial site from archaeologists and tries to sell the perfectly preserved body of an Indian he found below the waters of Lake Superior. “Sunset Limited” is a rescue trip to Mexico, where a group of 60s-era radicals reunite to spring a friend from jail. It’s like getting the band back together, but with guns. (Starring: Kevin Costner! Susan Sarandon! …etc.) And “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” features a middle-class housewife who’s finally had enough. At a gas station rest stop, in the middle of corn country, she just ditches her button-up husband, and starts a new life. These break some of the Harrison patterns, not being quite so much the repetitious food, sex, food, sex, food… and so on.
Wolf: A False Memoir
This is Harrison’s first novel. A disaffected 30-something man gives an episodic recounting of his life story while tramping around the Michigan wilderness hoping to encounter a wolf. It establishes a few Harrison staples: unromanticized sex,* immersion in nature and more testosterone than 3 mortal men combined. Starts with a 2 – 3 page sentence (not characteristic of his style) which he later said was just “showing off”. (No, nothing to do with the werewolf film Wolf that yes, Harrison did write. Unrelated.)
A Good Day to Die
A disaffected* academic slumming it fishing in Florida hooks up with a damaged Vietnam vet and his GRITS girlfriend for a road trip thru middle America. The destination? Out west to blow up a dam. Add booze, drugs and a love triangle and you’ve got some flawed eco-terrorism – or maybe a Jim Jarmusch film.
* NOTE on disaffection: it seems a pattern in Harrison’s work that any character who spends time in “civilized” society (New York, Los Angeles, having a job, etc) will end up disaffected and on some type of quest that involves nature and sex.
A teacher at a school recently closed, with an inherited farm, faces mid-life. Risking the loss of his childhood sweetheart, he indulges in a May-December fling with one of his students. How to work thru the dilemma? By shooting animals in the forest with his buddy. It’s a story about growing up, in your 40s. (Maybe I’m editorializing.)
Follow the misadventures of underemployed Johnny “Warlock” Lundgren, age 42, as he gets his shit together and takes it on the road – into maybe even deeper mud than he’s trying to escape. Through the thick haze of his own appetites, Warlock fights his way thru an unusual job opportunity trying to shore up his identity and his marriage. Reminds me of Philip Marlowe, minus the nobility, plus a tendency to self-involvement & self-indulgence.
A novelist is challenged to write “about someone who actually does something.” Enter a figure who reminds me a bit of the Dos Equis guy, but a lot more realistic: a complex, world-savvy, adventuring, semi-industrialist, lover-of-women. This one is kinda like a medley: the text is a combination of narrative, the writer’s audio notes to himself and the story of the Dos Equis guy. Not much of a plot in any conventional sense, and def not my favorite, but also hard to put down.
The Road Home
This novel takes place in the same world as Dalva, but follows different characters (who also appeared in that novel), including Dalva’s grandfather, mother, uncle, son and then more from Dalva. So, if Dalva wasn’t epic enough for you, here’s more on the Northridge family, Native Americans and all that complicated Midwest lore. It’s more than a sequel; it’s an expansion.
If Dalva is a family history with a few shady corners, True North is a family history buried in a dark shadow. David Burkett tries to undo (or at least outlive) the damage his father did to both to the Michigan forests he gutted for profit and to his family (and others, including a 12 year old girl). This one lacks humor or the bumbling endearment of his other stories/characters, though it has a lot of familiar elements: American history, native culture, philandering, etc..
Returning to Earth
This novel fills in spaces from True North. David makes another appearance, but it centers more on Cynthia – his sister – and her husband Don, as he dies of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, with a few others in the mix. The sharing of Don’s Chippewa heritage and how the others carry on without him – or has he come back in the spirit of a bear? – more or less make up the two halves of the story.
The English Major
Though the men in his stories don’t always treat their women with quite the level of respect they should, they do often get their comeuppance: Cliff is dumped by his wife for a younger man. Cliff cashes out of Michigan and goes on a meandering road trip to rename states and birds. Along the way, he finds the limits of his sexual appetite (with a former student, no less), visits his movie-industry son and hangs out at a reptile farm in AZ. Like I said: road trip. The death of his dog puts this one in the country music category.
The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery
An alcoholic, retired cop – Sunderson – gets tangled in an informal investigation of a local cult and its leader. He enlists the help of his teenage, neighborhood computer-whiz – uh, who’s a third his age, yet still on his “tail-chasing” radar. Caveat emptor: this is not at all unusual with Harrison. The philosophizing covers everything from history to pop culture to aging (which is a common element of his later work). Alternately dark (sexual abuse) and wacky (getting nearly stoned to death by cult acolyte coeds – Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, anyone?), this one has something for every (mature) reader.
The Big Seven
Retired detective Sunderson is back, this time diving into the criminal lives of new neighbors, the Ames family. Like a bunch of landlocked pirates, literally raping, pillaging and murdering (even within the family), few others in the community have the nerve to stand up to them. This is a siren song for our “hero”, who adds to the usual Harrison list of philosophical musings “the Big Seven”, as in “the seven deadly sins”. Between himself and the Ames, they pretty much have them covered.
This is not actually a novel, but a collection of all the Brown Dog novellas, with an extra one that doesn’t appear elsewhere. Brown Dog is a recurring character, a wily, rakish, Michigan native American (maybe, or maybe just part), who careens his way thru ridiculous – sometimes dangerous – situations. He is a combo of Jim Morrison and Huck Finn. Amongst Brown Dog’s misadventures are trips to Canada and Los Angeles, lake-diving amateur archaeology, touring with a band, running from the law, rescuing his stepchildren and a lion’s share of boozing and womanizing. If you’re looking for the fun Harrison, these are them – and they should probably be turned into a series of graphic novels. It would be an essential – on account of being his most recurring character – but the stories themselves are a bit uneven in quality.
In the titular novella, Julip must come to the rescue of her brother, who sits in jail after having exacted bloody revenge upon a group of men whom he believes have violated her. The truth is more complicated. “The Seven-Ounce Man” is an uneventful Brown Dog story. In “The Beige Dolorosa”, a disgraced academic retreats to Arizona and, like a drunk phoenix, stumbles out of the ashes, via a more physical existence – out in nature, etc.. Overall, not his best effort.
The Beast God Forgot to Invent
Three novellas. In “Westward Ho” Brown Dog quests thru Los Angeles, aghast at the weirdness of Hollywood life, trying to recover his stolen bear skin. In the titular story, an aging richest-guy-in-town hovers around a circle of folks the center of which is a brain-damaged man who somehow manages to live freer (almost literally like a wild animal) and get all the ladies. I really hoped this one was gonna end with that character morphing into an actual bear, as there is a small precedent in Harrison for the magical. “I Forgot to Go to Spain” is about a hack biography writer trying to recapture his youth. This one was baffling.
The Summer He Didn’t Die
Starting with a Brown Dog tale, of the title, this is a varied collection. Brown Dog has to decide whether to take his young step-daughter, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, to Canada, or comply with a law the requires she be institutionalized. The “Republican Wives” of the next novella are the three former lovers of a poet, whom one of them has tried to murder. “Tracking” is a partially autobiographical retrospective of a writer.
The Farmer’s Daughter
“The Farmer’s Daughter” is about a teenage girl growing up well, despite being more or less on her own, but who is beaten down by sexual abuse from a stranger. She plots her revenge. Brown Dog is back in “Brown Dog Redux”, still trying to help his step-daughter, shaking up Canada a bit and being a rock groupie (Thunderskins!). “The Games of Night” is about a boy who goes to Mexico and becomes a werewolf.
The River Swimmer
This one only has two novellas. Divorced, retired, failed artist Clive retreats from a life of refinement to his midwestern roots to take care of his ailing mother. Epiphanies and a childhood sweetheart encroach, as you might expect. “The River Swimmer” is about a much younger man – a teenager, actually – who spends as much time as possible in his local lakes and rivers. Not only does he see magical/mysterious creatures under water, but he begins to interpret and explore the whole world thru the lens of Nature.
The Ancient Minstrel
The titular story seems a bit autobiographical, about a crusty old writer living in the sticks, caught between his wife and a small-scale pig-farming endeavour. In “Eggs”, a middle-aged woman reflects on her youth in England (during the war) and her current, late-coming desire to have children. And our pal Sunderson is back, after cultists again in “The Case of the Howling Buddhas”, with most of the trouble coming from indulgence in one of the seven deadly sins – give you two guesses which one.
A typical writing day for Jim Harrison was split between poetry and fiction. We’re not going to go book-by-book with the poetry, but he wrote it consistently for five decades. Like we said above, folks sometimes say his prose is a bit ragged, but I don’t think you can say that about his verse. In fact, he came to fiction after publishing poetry, and only at the prodding of his friend Thomas McGuane.
Outlyer and Ghazals
Letters to Yesenin – this one takes the form of letters to a Russian poet
Returning to Earth
Selected and New Poems, 1961-1981
Natural World: A Bestiary
The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems
After Ikkyu and Other Poems
The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems
Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry – a collaboration with Ted Kooser, with whom he alternates verses
In Search of Small Gods
Songs of Unreason
Dead Man’s Float
A children’s book:
The Boy Who Ran to the Woods
Okay. He wrote a children’s book. The head spins. But not to worry, though an autobiographical tale of a rough childhood (including a recreation of the brutal incident wherein Harrison lost sight in one of his eyes), it’s very typically Harrison without all the adult bits. Lots of romping in the woods and philosophizing about apparently mundane things capped by learning how to survive in the “real” world.
Just Before Dark: Collected Nonfiction
From the 60s up to the early 90s, these articles and essays cover not only the expected range of Harrison’s interests (food, nature, books) but also display his growth as a person. Best for completists, because since he puts so much of himself directly into his fiction, there isn’t much here that you won’t also find in his stories.
The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand
Harrison had gout. You will not wonder why after reading this collection of his food writing. He knows his stuff from wild game to European gourmet, and will share with you every detail before, during and after the meal. Though he name-drops with the best (from both inside and outside the culinary world) his own expertise and passion is overwhelming.
Off to the Side: A Memoir
This is the story of himself, from childhood to the early 2000s. He actually – and this makes total sense if you’ve read his fiction (or even just this Overview) – divides a good chunk of this book into his “7 obsessions”. They are: alcohol, stripping, hunting/fishing (plus dogs), Native Americans, travel, France and religion. I guess food is left out since it got its own book. You don’t need this unless you’re a fan, but if you’re a fan – jump in the water.
As long as you don’t mind that already in the lake is this naked, shaved bear who will goose you and your sister under the water with zero qualms. He’s not violent, but he’s not tame.
BONUS (sorta) :
The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and the Practice of the Wild
This book (and DVD) is a conversation between Harrison and his good friend (and Beat poet) Gary Snyder. They discuss everything from Zen to ecology. It is mostly Snyder’s show, and a few other folks make appearances.