By Joe Sharkey
Jim Harrison was one of those novelists I always meant to read more of and, now that he has died, I’m sadly reminded to do just that. To date, I’ve only read “Dalva” and “Legends of the Fall.”
Harrison died at age 78 Saturday in Patagonia, Ariz., an interesting little village (pop. about 900) in the high desert about 60 miles south of Tucson that Harrison called “preposterously beautiful” in a 2007 interview in the New York Times. Though his natural habitat was the north woods of Michigan, “Mr. Harrison lived most recently during the summers in the wild countryside near Livingston, Mont., where he enthusiastically shot the rattlesnakes that colonized his yard, and during the winters in Patagonia, where he enthusiastically shot all kinds of things,” according to the obit by Margalit Fox that ran the front page of this morning’s Times.
Fox is a wonderful obit writer, and she’s in excellent form today, in a newspaper that still takes seriously the craft of the finely wrought obituary. Much to his disgust, Fox notes, Jim Harrison was often compared to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he shared a love of the rugged outdoors, an image as a man who fully and lustily lived his life, but not a lot else.
Actually, she writes, “At bottom, Mr. Harrison was not so much like Hemingway as he was like something out of Hemingway. Or, more accurately, something out of Rabelais — a mustachioed, barrel-chested bear of a man whose unapologetic immoderation encompassed a dazzling repertory…”
Fox adds that he was also a noted gourmand, with a reputation “titanically encapsulated in a dinner Mr. Harrison once shared with Orson Welles, which involved, he wrote, ‘a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports’ — and a chaser of cocaine.”
Sometimes, he was dismissed as a misogynist. Without advocating that characterization, Fox does supply this observation by Harrison, whose writing career included brief but riotous stints in Hollywood: “’If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,’ he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, ‘you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.'”
As I read that comment this morning, I laughed out loud and read it to my wife. She did not laugh. Instead, she gave her own considered literary assessment of Jim Harrison, one that many smart and well-read women share:
“I think he was a pig,” she said.
I won’t dare argue with that, but I will I dig up some of the Harrison works I’ve neglected.
And I will say, with some sadness, that it is not likely we shall see his likes again.
Here’s the Times obit: