- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

THE ENGLISH MAJOR

By Jim Harrison

Grove Press, $24, 254 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

In his last two novels, “Returning to Earth” and “The Summer He Didn’t Die,” Jim Harrison, my favorite living American novelist, looked through the glass darkly at the late innings of a man’s life. In “The English Major,” he’s still dealing with an older male, but this time the view is anything but dark. In fact, it’s such a wild and witty romp, such a Falstaffian, Rabelaisian, Dionysian orgy-on-wheels that I almost suspect the author of wish fulfillment, a suspicion supported by his choosing this James M. Cain line as his epigraph: “I write for the wish that comes true, a terrifying concept.”

One of the chief reasons I like Mr. Harrison is that he can pack so much punch into just a few words. His very first sentence — “It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn’t.” — is a clear signal that what follows will not be an ode to joy, and certainly not to Vivian. Married for 38 years, they have “grown apart.”

Years ago Cliff was a high school English teacher; now he tends a small farm and minds his own business. But Vivian, rejuvenated by her new career as a real estate agent and an affair with an old flame, dumps Cliff and then euchres him out of the farm. If all this tsouris isn’t bad enough, then his dog dies, almost completing the transformation of the story line into that of a country-western song. The final step comes when he decides to get in his old brown Taurus and hit the road (Quick, someone call Burt Reynolds).

Being a true Jim Harrison hero, Cliff doesn’t simply get in his car and go, he comes up with a plan, a wonderfully goofy quest that would appeal to Don Quixote, Sal Paradise and William Least Heat Moon.

As a child, Cliff had treasured his jigsaw puzzle map of the United States - because he’s now 60 it only had 48 pieces - that came with a list of each state’s official flower, bird and motto. Finding it again just as he’s lost home, hearth and pet, gives Cliff a purpose: “… I decided to take the jigsaw puzzle of the United States and throw a piece out when I crossed the border into a new state. It would be nice to throw away Michigan [where the novel and much of Mr. Harrison’s fiction is set] for the time being. Dad said I would always be ‘high minded and low waged’ from reading too much Ralph Waldo Emerson. Maybe he was right.”

There’s more to the trip. Cliff, who’d always considered the official bird and flower names woefully inadequate, plans to rename them as he crosses the country, tossing little state-shaped puzzle pieces in his wake. It’s the kind of idea that might come to a man who’d read too much Emerson. And then there’s his ulterior motive. Years ago, one of his best students was a most comely lass named Marybelle, who while she may have been “too sharp-tongued to be popular with her classmates,” was very popular with Cliff, and he makes plans to see her.

Before Cliff leaves, he visits his alcoholic doctor friend who gives him “lots of samples of Viagra and Levitra for my trip, plus the phone number of a ‘hot chick’ in St. Paul …” And away he goes, totally unconcerned about starting off on a major road trip in an old brown Taurus with 250,000 miles.

As Cliff drives, he reminisces about his life with Vivian, which, the more he tells, the more it seems like he’s far better off on the road. Yet, as with all Mr. Harrison’s men, there’s the saving grace of affection based on love not entirely lost. All the observations, the asides, the wisecracks - all things Jim Harrison tosses off with such ease - coalesce to produce a fascinating tapestry of life in contemporary America as seen by an Aging White Male with a sharp eye and a devilishly funny (and bawdy and irreverent) sense of humor.

And then there’s Marybelle. “In my ten years of teaching I had only three students I truly wanted to keep in touch with and Marybelle was number one. We had corresponded every few months for the past twenty-five years about the ups and downs of life. Marybelle could get as excited about pistils and stamens as she was about the novels of the Bronte sisters and the poetry of Walt Whitman. She was what you call an off-brand peach, real pretty to some tastes but a little exotic to the local boys. … I hadn’t seen Marybelle since early in September before she took off for college twenty-five years ago. We took a ride in the country and when I let her out she hugged me and said, ‘Cliff, you’ve meant so much to me.’ She had said in a letter that she never thought Vivian was worthy of my high mind. That wasn’t a lot to go on to try to uncover a buried treasure.”

Ask any man over 60 about his chances of talking a sexy young girl 25 years his junior into making a road trip with him, and you’ll see despair personified. But we’re in the land of Jim Harrison, and Marybelle is not only ready, willing and eager, she’s also twice as hungry for sex as Cliff. If ever there was a cautionary, be-careful-what-you-wish-for-tale, this is it. Or, to be put it another way, remember the epigraph.

Much as Cliff appreciates Marybelle’s anti-post-modern approach to sex, her passion for passion, he’s less than thrilled by her passion for her cell phone, a perfect symbol of generational difference. Cliff’s search for a clear vista is easily matched by Marybelle’s quest for a clear signal. Eventually, he even begins to tire of the overabundant sex, but is wise enough to regret in advance, “… knowing how much I’d miss it when it was gone. An English poet said, ‘Kiss the joy as it flies.’ You bet I would.”

On and on they roll, reducing the number of puzzle pieces considerably. Colorado, Wyoming, California, where the odd couple stay with Cliff’s gay son, and then a U-turn back east. Marybelle gets dropped off, then is back on again, Cliff, now alone, visits a snake farm in Arizona run by a friend and spends some time at a fishing camp in Montana. He takes up with yet another beautiful young woman, but this one will only let him look, not touch, and then, all of a sudden, Cliff is back in Michigan, where he and Vivian, of all people, may fashion a rapprochement of sorts.

The sight of his former farm, now a rich couple’s weekend toy, depresses Cliff mightily, but the idea of fixing up and living in his grandfather’s old country place is a tonic. While planning his future, his thoughts drift back to the past:

“I look back at the bungalow which is catching the light of the orange rising sun. Grandpa is drinking his coffee with a splash of Four Roses whiskey for his heart. Teddy sits in a puddle in the driveway. Dad is digging earthworms in the corner of the yard so we can catch bluegills to fry up for lunch. And here I am, fifty years later, an old body bent on a new life.”

This is a fine book.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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