on The English Major, a novel by Jim Harrison (Grove Press)

In a New York Times interview last year, Jim Harrison told Charles McGrath that he wrote The English Major at top speed – even though he rationed himself to one page per day. “My mind can’t stop running fictively,” he said, a comment not just about his continuous productivity. Prizing authenticity and the instinctive life, Harrison seems to have slammed all the distracting doors in the corridor between his psyche and his writing. His sentences are spoken, their pauses not governed by commas as much as by the using-up of breath. Since Harrison, now 70, is still a loyal American Spirit smoker, those breaths measure out a pared-down, unwasteful speech in which the materials of the novelist’s life – aging, affinity for the animal and the land, food and sex, living with loss – can’t stop running towards their renewed appearance in language and story.

harrison3.jpgThe narrator of The English Major, Harrison’s fifteenth book of fiction, is a 60-year old Michigan cherry farmer named Cliff who has been abandoned by his wife Vivian at a high school reunion. Cliff had taught English and history at that school before taking over his father-in-law’s farm (“This man was a big strong asshole and had gone to glory from a heart attack trying to carry a hundred pounds of perch fillets and ice from a cabin to the pickup”). Vivian went into real estate – and with their separation, arranged to have the farm auctioned off. Cliff’s pending homelessness doesn’t seem to bother him until the death of his dog: “I took to drink which had never been a big item in my life … quitting two weeks ago after I thought I ran over our dog Lola.” But 14-year old Lola has died anyway “with a half-chewed gopher in her mouth.”

It’s as if this story is being told to Lola’s abiding ghost, riding shotgun in his 13-year old Ford Taurus since Cliff has decided to tour the USA with his meager payout from the farm sale. He’ll not only travel, but execute a project: renaming the states and the state birds. Lola has been the most companionable and reliable female presence in his life, and memories of her flare up throughout the novel. This makes the reader (the listener) an equivalent of the dog -- slow to criticize, empathetic, familiar with basic instincts, and unfussy about language. Cliff is comfortable with us -- and that makes for flattery. We’re taken in. The English Major is a road novel, and each chapter (titled by the state visited) is told perhaps at some moment of rest at the end of the day or while Cliff is driving the backroads or highways from upper Michigan, through the upper Midwest to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, the southwest, and ultimately back to Michigan.

Cliff’s speech is occasioned by the sudden dismantling of his way of life. In Wisconsin he takes pictures of cows and remarks on the pastureland. But in Minnesota he meets up with Marybelle, a 43-year old former student with bipolar streakiness. The first sentence of “South Dakota” reads, “As we crossed the state line of south Dakota below Fort Yates Marybelle joked that I sounded like I had been in long-term parking for twenty-five years” – meaning he sounded worn, his mind slowed. But what the reader hears from Cliff is something closer to Marybelle’s own talkativeness – aimed at Cliff and her cell phone:

“These empty western areas are bad for cell phone reception so I said I’d try to park on a hill, and if that didn’t work when we reached a good-sized town I’d park and go into a diner for coffee and a piece of pie and she could chatter to her heart’s delight.
‘I don’t chatter,’ she said. ‘I exchange survival information with friends.”
‘‘What are you surviving?’ I stupidly asked.
‘‘Life itself. Marriage. Children. My stunted growth as a human.’
‘You seem real lively to me,’ I offered.
‘You’re seeing the best side. You draw out my best side. You were my favorite teacher. You mentored me.’”

Much like Harrison, Cliff moves easily from the raunchy to the literary. “Marybelle had also made the slightest apology for her concern about our age differences and said, ‘There are miracle drugs that can keep a man active until he’s a hundred.’ While looking at the Pacific I laughed imagining myself a wizened flying squirrel hurling myself on unsuspecting women while aiming my boner before I leapt.” Three pages later, he’s talking about Dostoevsky and Jack London.

harrison2.jpgHarrison said that Cliff represents “all those preposterous people who major in English in college.” Cliff’s state-bird-naming project may be preposterous in one sense, but in another it stands for an idiosyncratic truth in the man. Cliff isn’t drawn as preposterous, just at a loss (but not for words). About his marriage he reflects, “Maybe we were just another couple who faded late in the game. I didn’t offer her a lot in my back-to-nature binge after I quit teaching. We English majors of a serious bent are susceptible to high ideals we paste on our lives like decals.” Nevertheless, the narration is salted with oddball references (thus sounding astute) to Joyce, Emerson, Nabakov, Thoreau, Wolfe and Woolf, Dickens, Shakespeare, de Toqueville, Byron, Whitman, Eiseley, Spenser, Hemingway, Genet, Ionesco, Dickinson, Henry Miller, Millay, Frost, Sandburg, Benet, EA Robinson, Hart Crane and Wordsworth. In a Salon interview, Harrison said, “Fiction writers tend to err either making people more than they are or less than they are.” In this novel, he seems to have hit on a workable mix.

Cliff knows that desire dies quickly and routine takes its place. His road trip becomes a routine of desire. Marybelle is a sexual windfall – but the flux of her emotions and conversation soon has Cliff yearning for solitude. His gay son Robert, a site scout for Hollywood films, lives in San Francisco, the halfway mark of the novel. Here the Marybelle episode subsides and is replaced by adventures at a snake farm in the southwest (where Harrison spends his winters). There Cliff meets up with his friend AD (alcoholic doctor) who tells him, “You’re trying to start a new life at age sixty, which is also impossible. You can only try variations on your common theme.” In the end, the trip is an abbreviated circle – but Harrison spares us from a too-comfortable resolution (perhaps just barely).

Lust, fishing, diners, waitresses, animals, memory of youth and marriage, birds, rivers, backroads, burgers, drinking – these are Cliff’s materials. Harrison’s timing is perfect, the plot often very comical, and the pace constant. Cliff’s doubts are poignant and round him out (while suggesting a thought that perhaps has flickered across Harrison’s mind from time to time). Cliff has a habit of wandering out into the landscape and encountering harsh weather or circumstances. Harrison juggles a sincere appreciation for Emersonian self-reliance and nature with opposing worries. Cliff says, “I couldn’t get rid of the idea that nature had had too much effect on my abilities to pan out in the world. I was an old baloney bull who favored the far corner of the pasture where it merged into the forty-acre woodlot. A baloney bull is one that has out-aged its effectiveness. You cart it into the slaughterhouse where it’s turned into low-rent cold cuts.”

harrison.jpgHarrison told Charles McGrath, “One’s work is a building and everything else in the literary life is just scaffolding. The building either stands or not. The literary world, whether New York or Paris or London, is chock full of esteemed nullities.” It’s not the nullity (of which there’s a lot in his novels) but the pretension of esteem that turns off Harrison. The English Major only confirms my esteem for his novels – and the leveling experience, the sensation of cutting through thought-clutter that comes from hearing Harrison’s language and guides the reader to an appreciation that Harrison would seem to consider more proper.

[Published October 7, 2008, 272 pages., $24.00 hardcover]

An English major should know better!

I just finished the book today and have to make these comments:

1) On page 248 this "English major" writes "... I brought she and her mother home...." when correct grammar dictates "... I brought her mother and her home...." (I brought "she" home????)

2) On page 255 both Colorado and Utah are renamed "Ute" and both South Carolina and West Virginia are renamed "Catawba"! Is the reader expected to believe that the U.S has been reduced from 50 to 48 states???

Note: I also questioned the use of "trepanation" (page 214) instead of "trephination" -- but I'll let that one slide.