We Loved the Earth but Could Not Stay

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.

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2 thoughts on “We Loved the Earth but Could Not Stay

  1. This one was well worth waiting for and I am very heartened to read that you are getting your hands into the soil. I cringe at the very true description of those early days in LA which were the death knell of bookshops. I cringe because I found myself to be one of those bag-toting mercenaries at Duttons and other shops. Not at all liking it. I felt the same self-loathing and stink of the grave-robber when attending estate sales or being called to consider a dead parents’ collection. I was a bookseller and as such one cannot be too delicate. It is a dog-eat-dog , cutthroat business not at all the gentlemanly calling it is always presented to be. I was/am a reader as you well know and I found myself with a collection too large for my apartment and no real job so I began selling. To succeed you must also buy and you cannot, should not buy what you really like or you will become a collector again. And so I threw myself headlong into the fray. I recall standing in a line also at Duttons I believe waiting to have Albee sign my two bags of firsts, one in my wife’s hands, one in mine. What I really wanted to do was sit and talk theatre with him. This was a painful experience as I had read and seen every one of those plays and wanted to keep them all for myself. It was agony. I did keep and still have the signed “A Delicate Balance” and I engaged him in conversation about a mutual friend/playwright I had lost track of. I haven’t gone to one of those signings in two decades and I certainly do not miss them. I collect only reading copies and make my living as a bibliographer for another bookseller. I leave him to do the dirty work.

    As for Harrison, I should read his works having only the two films of his that I have seen both of which repulsed me. “Wolf” and what I call (sorry for the rude language) “Legend of the Big Hairy Balls” Perhaps I will start with “Dalva” on your recommendation. I do lament his passing but only as I do any artist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You should write about your experiences as a book seller during that period, Lawrence … very vivid remembrances … and you get a pass for your shopping bag period, lol. I know you’re a reader first! LOL too, on Legend of the Big Hairy Balls, both movies made from Harrison books were godawful. But you should read Dalva is you get a chance. I think it’s a great book.

    Liked by 1 person

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