- - Thursday, April 14, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE ANCIENT MINSTREL

By Jim Harrison

Grove Press, $25, 255 pages

This is the ultimate good news / bad news review: the book is great, but the author just died.

The day after your reviewer read and enjoyed “The Ancient Minstrel,” the morning newspaper brought the news that the book’s author, Jim Harrison, had died at 78.

Not that his death should have surprised anyone familiar with the prolific Mr. Harrison and his writing. After expressing fear that this giant of American letters might have like Ernest Hemingway — to whom Mr. Harrison was often, but inaccurately, compared — taken his own life, a friend and fellow Harrison-ite, who knew the cause of death had been a heart attack, replied, “If he ate and drank half as much as he claimed, then perhaps he did take his life.”

Increasingly in recent years, Mr. Harrison’s fiction had become autobiographical. In fact, at the end of the “author’s note” in this book, he writes, “I decided to continue the memoir” — he’d written one years ago — “in the form of a novella. At this late date I couldn’t bear to lapse into any delusions of reality in nonfiction.”

The novella, or short novel, is a form Jim Harrison, my favorite contemporary American writer of fiction, used often. He used it for the first time in “Legends of the Fall,” which came out in 1980 and put him on the literary map (It was later made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt). Prior to that time he had been best known as a poet and essayist. “The Minstrel,” is another three-taled rumination on life, love and various other vicissitudes, such as sex and drink. The titles of the three novellas are, respectively: “The Ancient Minstrel”; ” Eggs” and “The Case of the Howling Buddha.” In the first tale, the author gives us an aging writer who succumbs to a lifelong urge to raise pigs. “Eggs” is about an amazingly self-sufficient woman who has loved chickens all her life. Their main product serves as an apt symbol for her adult life. In the third and last novella, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas,” we meet up once again with ex-detective, now private investigator Sunderson, a recurring character in Mr. Harrison’s fiction whose lust for life often gets the better of him.

All of Jim Harrison’s fiction is a blend of humor (much of it bawdy), sex (ditto) and observations on the human condition that verge on the profound. When reading Mr. Harrison, it’s not uncommon to guffaw one minute and go all transcendental the next. In the first novella, “The Ancient Minstrel,” the main character tells us he is ” what they called ‘an award-winning poet,’ at least that’s what his publisher called him on book jackets, though in fact he had never heard of any of the awards until he received them. So much for the immortality of poetry.”

Large parts of this story seem to be directly autobiographical, which is fine with me because they are written in Mr. Harrison’s signature prose, a deceptively simple subject-verb-object (“No adverbs need apply”) style that in a lesser writer would get boring.

The poet and his wife are separated and she kept the dogs, which he misses greatly, so he buys a large sow and glories in her piglets, which he attempts to treat like dogs. (Go figure; this is the land of Jim Harrison.) At one point he sits down to write a poem about pigs, but quite soon “he was so exhausted he drove to the saloon in town. Poetry does this to us. You can quickly either soar or drown in depression.”

The protagonist in “Eggs” is Catherine, whose story begins with, “Only later in life did she learn that chickens are the closest living relatives to dinosaurs.” She’d loved chickens since she was a child feeding them on her grandparents’ farm in Montana, and throughout her complicated life, which takes her to London during World War II, and then back to the American West, she displays both a singular toughness and a fierce desire to have a child, but not with a husband as part of the package. Catherine’s search for just the right man for the job is the kind of conundrum that fascinates the author, and then, through him, the reader.

The last novella of the three, “The Case of Howling Buddhas,” reads as if Jim Harrison knew he was bringing back Sunderson, his beloved old crime-solver, for the last time. Given the sexual gymnastics involved in solving his latest case, it would be hard to imagine yet another sequel. But if anybody could have done it, it would have been Jim Harrison.

R.I.P., Ancient Minstrel. Thanks for all the pleasure your work gave us. But what a loss.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.

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