Sunday, October 18, 2009

The English Major

This book was a pleasant surprise. There was something fresh and striking on virtually every page -- at times wry or outright funny, or poignant, or, sometimes, wise.

I had read Jim Harrison's Warlock many years ago and liked it well enough. So the other day when I saw this on the new fiction table at Politics & Prose, I picked it up, liked the opening and bought it.

Cliff is 60. His wife of 38 year divorced him and they sold his farm in the process. His dog, Lola, died. He embarks on a road trip to cope with his loss, guided by a harebrained scheme to rename all the states after he's seen them and to rename the state birds, and other birds, while he's at it. He carries a child's jigsaw puzzle of the 50 states and throws the piece for a state away once he's been through it.

Part of Harrison's talent is that he makes all of this seem perfectly natural. Cliff is quirky, flawed, but very sympathetic. He has enough self-irony and self-deprecation to avoid falling into pathos. "Here I was at sixty with no home to return to but that didn't make me unique," he says at one point. "Time tricks us into thinking we're part of her and then leaves us behind."

Harrison has published several volumes of poetry and the distilled insight threaded through this book shows a poet's sensibility. But always down to earth. The newly liberated married man -- though he also had an affair at the end of his marriage -- picks up a former student of his for part of the road trip. The sex-hungry, narcissistic Marybelle fulfills the fantasies of a lifetime for Cliff but in the end it is too much. He wakes up one night in a motel room unhappy with his situation. "I had an irritating hard-on when what I wished to be was a monk in a cool room reading a Latin text by candlelight."

Cliff misses his wife, Vivian, at least he Viv he remembers from the early years of their marriage. He misses Lola, too, his main companion in life after Viv went into real estate and became increasingly estranged. When Cliff stays with his son in San Francisco, the son, Robert, wakes him up one morning with the greeting, "Poor old Dad, you look beat up." Cliff tells us, "I didn't take offense because I had had a pleasant dream of Lola sitting beside me on the John Deere."

On his road trip through several Western states (don't worry, he doesn't make it through all 50), Cliff stops often to take photos of the local cattle, with a comment about how they compare to the cattle on his farm. My mother, who grew up on a farm, always remarked about the cows we saw whenever we traveled together.

He is also attentive to birds, noting the state bird in each new state and sometimes coming up with a different name for them. He is dumbfounded when a drinking buddy on the road tells him about a quote found in the journal of a schizophrenic who escaped from an asylum: "Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass."

Cliff comes to terms with his new losses, as he always has, beginning with the accidental drowning of his brother, who had Down syndrome, when he was a child. He grieves, he weeps when he sees what the new owners have done with his beloved farm, he cobbles together an uncertain future, he gets a new dog.

It's a quick, wonderful read, a homespun picaresque that is often touching. I won't wait so long to read another Jim Harrison novel, and I'm very curious now about his poetry.

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