A master at storytelling has passed, but his books will continue to give insight into his life.
I was a teenager when Legends of the Fall was turned into a movie and I barely noticed it. The next time Jim Harrison would pop into my life was during an episode of No Reservations. At that time, Harrison was living in Montana, but I learned how Harrison was living in northern Michigan when he wrote Legends of the Fall. Twenty-five years after Legends of the Fall, I am finally reading the books written by a man who captured my home state in words.
Inspired to improve my own writing craft, I started to hunt down books by Harrison who had already published over thirty. The first book I found was A Good Day to Die, a story that did not take place in Michigan. Instead, it was a drunken, drug induced road trip across the southern states with the love triangle of two men and a woman. The premise of the story reminded me of On the Road by Jack Kerouac and I wasn’t surprised to learn later that Harrison personally knew Kerouac. There were several other celebrities that Harrison knew including Jack Nicholson, who loaned Harrison $15,000 to jumpstart the movie Legends of the Fall.
Out of everything that Harrison wrote, I was surprised to find that Legends of the Fall was his best known, and the one turned into a film. The extraordinary element about this book was the fact it was written in 9 Days, by hand on legal note pads. Harrison wrote his first few books on a Remington typewriter, he hen pecked the keys in a slow methodical fashion while forcing himself to think ahead constantly on what would come next. Eventually, he switched to pen and paper as his preferred method of writing. This influenced his first drafts to be the only versions he would write before faxing the pages to have them transcribed to a computer.
Even with Legends of the Fall’s popularity, Harrison never dominated the American market, instead he found a group of faithful readers in France where he would have 9 Best sellers. Earlier works, like Dalva, have remained in print for decades to Harrison’s surprise.
I continued reading Harrison, moving into his collections of Novellas, his preferred style of writing, and his Faux Mystery novels. I quickly picked up on his character driven style and the realism he portrayed in his stories. Regardless of the setting, his novels always incorporated several elements including: trout fishing, Native Americans, poverty, and sexual relationships. Harrison is blunt in his writing, lacking any fear of taboo subject matter. He goes into the details of his character’s lives without editing sensitive issues forcing you to meet the soul of his characters.
The River Swimmer, another collection of Novellas, a young boy with no ambition to attend college, swims from Muskegon to Chicago after he nearly kills a man in a fist fight. A separate story in the same book depicts an older native American man who becomes a sperm donor for a younger lesbian woman he is attracted to. In The Farmer’s Daughter Harrison switches the perspective of his tale telling the story through the eyes of a young teenage girl. With her parents dead the highly intelligent girl his left to figure out her future and is given the opportunity to attend college at the early age of 15 years old.
While reading The Big Seven, I felt the story was written through Harrison’s eyes instead of the character’s. It is possible that the age of the character and his hobbies easily created a level of realism that had not been seen until then. Writing what one knows about is something that Harrison perfected by always incorporating intimate parts of his life into the story. In several interviews I listened to, Harrison expressed his surprise at his ability to sell “bullshit,” which was always said with a chuckle. Perhaps he learned the best lies were filled with pieces of truth to make it more plausible. The Big Seven was a plausible story set in the upper peninsula of Michigan and Paris, France where Harrison traveled several times for interviews and book signings.
An overwhelming feeling of grief came upon me when I learned that Harrison had died. Fittingly, it was an Instagram post by Anthony Bourdain, the same man who introduced me to Harrison through his show No Reservations, He had shared a photo with himself and Jim, captioned by the letters “RIP.” Upon reading that Harrison died, pen in hand, the first book I read by him came to mind, A Good Day to Die. The title fit. Is there a better way to leave this world beside doing what you love? I wish that book didn’t come to mind this weekend. I would rather have started The Summer He Didn’t Died and have that be a better fit to last weekend’s events.