James “Jim” Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) – Writer
“We loved the earth but could not stay” – a folk saying, the epigraph to Dalva.
I met Jim Harrison in 1994, when he was on a book tour for Julip, his short novel about a woman who sets out to get her brother released from jail. Oddly, Harrison (who had a reputation as a bit of a misogynist and a man’s man in the mold of Hemingway et al) was at his finest when writing not just about women but from a woman’s point of view. In my opinion, his greatest novel is Dalva (1988) – narrated by a middle-aged woman who longs for the son she gave up for adoption – and the best of his later works is its sequel, The Road Home (1998). I remember being excited by his most famous and commercially successful novel, Legends of the Fall (1979), then losing patience and giving up halfway through. I don’t remember why, although I plan to reread it – finish it this time – as my celebration of its creator’s life. I feel certain the impatience I felt was my own fault and not Harrison’s and I think one reason I never returned to Legends of the Fall is the hammy hyperbolic movie made from it starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins both sporting really long hair. I quit on it halfway through as well but have no plans to revisit.
Back to 1994, where I am standing in a ridiculously long line at Dutton’s Brentwood – a holy place now gone, as are all the Dutton’s bookstores in Los Angeles, nearly all the bookstores period – holding my newly purchased copy of Julip for Harrison to sign. I didn’t care about autographs, I just wanted to see Harrison up close, thank him for Dalva, ask him a question.
Most of the people in line with me only care about autographs. They have shopping bags full of first-edition Jim Harrisons for Jim Harrison to sign, which would increase the value of Brand Harrison’s literary offerings in a collectible market gone mad because of the internet. The next year will see the start of e-Bay, but rare book dealers and their like are already publishing their inventories on line and all types of collecting have started to globalize and create cottage industries. Those industries, in turn, have spawned a new class of bare-bones “entrepreneurs” who are(for the most part) making a marginal profit at a low investment. And a generous sampling of which are now crowded into the front room of Dutton’s Brentwood. Vocal, grasping, in a hurry to get nowhere fast are this new breed, collectors of books with no interest in reading books and exhibiting little evidence of ever having done so. They resemble the crowds of fans at movie premieres and Broadway stage doors, but devoid of purpose: fans with no sense of fandom. Un-fans. In the future, bookstores will limit the number of books signed and insist that at least one of them be purchased at their store, but this effusion of ignorant ugliness is still quite new and as yet unchecked, barely understood.
Seated behind a table at the head of the ponderous, sweaty snake – signing away and looking none too happy about it – is the author, our hero, Jim Harrison. His clothes are rumpled, his hair unkempt, his one blind eye staring off into space, and – even from a distance – he looks to me as if he’s been drinking. Possibly a lot. I alternate between taking peeks at him and trying to read Julip, which is good. But reading requires me to block out the obnoxious chatter all around me, emanating from the gaggle of shopping-baggers who all seem to know each other (not as friends, more in the manner of friendly competitors) as they trade notes on what they’d gotten for the new autographed Stephen King or brag about the Philip Roth first they picked up for a buck at a library sale. I hate them all and the only person in the crowd who mildly piques my interest is an Ichabod Crane fellow with stringy blond hair and a backpack who is standing two places ahead of me. The collectors in advance of and directly behind Ichabod Crane are giving him a wide berth and, before too long, I catch a whiff of why: he hasn’t bathed in awhile and this fact, combined with the backpack and his soiled army-surplus attire, leads me to surmise that he is homeless. Probably a homeless vet.
A short time later, Ichabod Crane arrives at the signing table, where he fishes inside the backpack, comes out with a beat-up paperback copy of Legends of the Fall, and hands it to Jim Harrison. Crane is mumbling and I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see Harrison’s face break into a smile and hear what he says back: “Finally, a reader!” There are a few more exchanges and then Harrison is inviting Crane behind the table, where he finds him another chair. Then he produces a bottle of whiskey and pours drinks for them both and they proceed to talk through two whiskeys for what must be twenty minutes. Quietly, intently, heads close together; if the man’s odor bothers Harrison he shows no sign. Meanwhile, the pretend book lovers all around me grow restive, begin complaining bitterly amongst themselves. Someone toward the back yells, “Hurry up.” Harrison ignores him and continues to talk to his reader, then – something agreed upon, some conclusion reached – their conversation is over. Harrison signs the man’s paperback and I see him press something between its pages, a phone number perhaps but more likely money, then they embrace and Crane is gone, out the back way. I never see his face.
I’m writing a play … and I need to stay in it, inside its world … which is why I haven’t written here for a time. But I saw that Jim Harrison had died and I wanted to remember him. I have another story … of the conversation we had when it came my turn in line … featuring the Jack Nicholson Endowment Fund. But that can wait for another day. Jim Harrison will be missed and I hope his best reader is somewhere safe and warm.