“Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.”
I can’t say I really knew him, the great novelist/poet/gourmand/fisherman/hunter who died last Saturday in the high desert south of Tucson, but I did have my fifteen minutes with Jim Harrison and hearing of his death this weekend burned a hole in my heart.
What a talent. What a huge talent. And what a life, what a quotable life.
Harrison, the Michigan-born writer of all manner of stories; violent, sweet, sexy, make you cry in the dark stories came to Idaho some years ago and it was both my pleasant and completely intimidating duty to interview him in front of an audience. Interviewing Jim Harrison was a little like reading Faulkner – a lot was going on there.
He didn’t know me from a bale and had no reason to care. No doubt he’d been through the “famous author answers questions from some rube in the sticks” routine ten thousand times. But he was kind, generous and did a reasonable approximation of Jim Harrison being interviewed; interviewed by someone – me – who wanted to sound “literary,” but mostly had to fake it. He might have embarrassed me. He didn’t.
“The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.”
We still laugh about that interview in the auditorium of the high school in Hailey, Idaho. After the author of “Legends of the Fall” and “Dalva” and a dozen other shining, wonderful books answered the last question he need a cigarette break. Returning from the smoking interlude outside he positioned himself at a small table in the auditorium in order to sign his name in the books fans clutched as they waited in line for a moment of his time. My very much better half, hoping to be helpful, inquired if he might need anything, thinking glass of water, cup of coffee, etc.
“A glass of red wine would be nice,” was the reply. You got the impression that might have been an appropriate response to almost any conceivable question asked of Jim Harrison.
Of all the books and all the poems, I like “Dalva” the best, perhaps because the story is set in the rough and starkly beautiful country of northwestern Nebraska where I have my own roots. The book centers on a rough, starkly beautiful 40-something half-Sioux woman who is on the quest we all are on – to find ourselves.
The Guardian noted in a 2012 story about Harrison that the book is an “overlooked classic,” but not in France where Harrison has long enjoyed a major following. He has said that it was not uncommon for him to encounter French women named “Dalva.” If you haven’t read it – read it.
“What’s the meaning of it all? “Seems to me nobody’s got a clue. Quote Jim Harrison on that: Nobody’s got a clue.”
Jim Fergus, interviewing Harrison for The Paris Review in 1986, said: “Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate.”
His close friend Tom McGuane, another very fine writer, said much the same when he wrote a short “postscript” about Harrison in The New Yorker: “Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”
He touched his readers, too.