Jim Harrison: A man who was fully in touch with life.
For the past month or so, I have been savoring the pages of a novel I’m reading for the first time. “Sundog” is its title, and it’s the work of an author I have admired — even loved — for a long time. His essays and articles in Esquire and other publications, and his novellas and novels and poems, have been part of my life since I was a teen, and I’ve made sure that everything he’s written is in my library.
In addition, beginning in 2013 or so, he became part of my daily thoughts, because I knew that he was getting older, and, as I did with James Salter, who passed away in 2015, I wanted to tell as many people about him as I could. His words, I thought, were rich and valuable, and he deserved to sell as many books as possible. I hoped I could help him do so.
The author of whom I speak, Jim Harrison, died on Saturday, at the age of 78. According to his friend the novelist Thomas McGuane, Harrison died writing, falling from his desk chair to the floor, the victim of a worn-out heart, never again to rise. Harrison published a book a month ago, and was still productive, but his wife of 55 years had died in 2015, and various physical ailments tormented him. He has done his part.
I am glad I spoke to so many about him and his writing, and his life. He lived a full one, and he loved, among many other things, eating and drinking (another reason I adored him). He was blinded in his left eye when he was a child when a 7-year-old neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle into his face during an argument. He partied with Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett. He laughed and cried and was married to Linda King for 56 years. I’m happy I picked up his novels and essays and stories so long ago and kept them near me. I look forward to finishing “Sundog” and going back to his other works. He’ll be there forever.
Here’s an excerpt from “A Really Big Lunch,” a piece published in The New Yorker in 2004 about a meal in France that Harrison enjoyed in 2013. The feast — all 37 courses — was one for the ages:
Is there an interior logic to overeating, or does gluttony, like sex, wander around in a messy void, utterly resistant to our attempts to make sense of it? Not very deep within us, the hungry heart howls, “Supersize me.” When I was a boy, in northern Michigan, feeding my grandfather’s pigs, I was amazed at their capacity. Before I was caught in the act and chided by my elders, I had empirically determined that the appetite of pigs was limitless. As I dawdled in the barnyard, the animals gazed at me as fondly as many of us do at great chefs. Life is brutishly short and we wish to eat well, and for this we must generally travel to large cities, or, better yet, to France.
You might know of Jim Harrison by the film Legends of the Fall. Or you might have read “Dalva,” a novel that astounds. If you have not heard of him, or read nothing he wrote, I ask that you pick up some of his books, find his articles. You won’t be sorry you did.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Harrison, and I leave it at this: “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony. … A lot of good fiction is sentimental. … The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”