*Originally posted on Great Lakes Guru (back in the old days) then in the BULL: Men's Fiction Parlor. Now back home for the last time (with a few minor revisions) -
Jim Harrison appeared on my radar about five years ago when my father-in-law recommended True North, which turned out to be one of my favorite books of all-time. I immediately went on to read almost all of Harrison’s works. Though on the surface Harrison would seem to be comparable to Hemingway – rural Michigan, fishing, hunting, ex-patriots – Harrison is really the anti-Hemingway. An academic at heart, Harrison’s thoughtful, sensitive side is often reflected in his lyrically-rich prose.
Even if his name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, you probably already know Jim Harrison. He penned Legends of the Fall and Wolf, both turned into major motion pictures. If you’re from Michigan, you can surely relate to this nature-lovers upbringing and world-view.
In his memoir, Off to the Side, Harrison writes eloquently about his Swedish upbringing on a farm in rural Michigan. Childhood episodes include the loss of his left eye in an accident, high school football, fishing, sexual awakening, and finally, his move away from Michigan, hitchhiking from Grayling to New York with a typewriter and $100. At points, Harrison attends Michigan State University and lives with his family near Traverse City.
Rather than give a rundown of his entire life, I’ll just recommend Off to the Side as the next logical progression from True North, Returning to Earth, and The Summer He Didn’t Die. I suggest reading Harrison’s catalog backwards. Some of his earlier work is not as good, so it’s more important to read the new stuff first. His poetry and essays are also good, and as an avid drinker he wrote some fine wine reviews.
What I most admire and love about Harrison’s writing is the way the characters are bonded to the Michigan landscape – their personalities seem to blossom from the natural surroundings in a way that is both spiritual and uniquely Michigan. With his careful prose, Harrison is able to reflect this relationship to the Great Lakes. The characters become the land and the physical landscape becomes a character, projecting a natural easiness like the changing of the seasons.
Mostly because I hate driving in traffic, I love that Harrison’s characters lose their strength and easiness when introduced to a metropolitan environment. On the rare occasions when his characters travel down the west coast of Michigan, to Chicago, they are generally disoriented, claustrophobic, paranoid, and frightened. Even in smaller cities like East Lansing, the protagonist of True North, David Burkett, loses his identity because there is no natural world to anchor him to reality. Too many people, too much traffic, or too much sound causes confusion and disconnect from identity.
In my very first Great Lakes Guru post, I mentioned that I loved Michigan because the people are quirky and unspoiled by the influences of Hollywood and the east coast. Harrison put it much better in a 1998 interview with Grand Rapids Magazine, saying, “… character so often arises out of location. You know the media keeps telling us we’re all the same; maybe we’re all the same if you don’t get off the freeway, but if you take the time to talk to anybody, more than an hour, you’re just convulsed again by the mystery of personality.”
The personality of Harrison’s characters is inextricably linked to the Michigan landscape, reflecting a spot-on portrait of this state’s inhabitants. Whether their relationship to the land is spiritual, or simply a marriage of convenience or necessity, there is no way to separate the people from the Great Lakes.
*Addendum: This writer highly recommends Harrison's newest book of poetry, In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) - Pure Michigan.