THE ANCIENT MINSTREL. By Jim Harrison. Grove Press. 255 pages. $25.
This is not exactly a review of the late Jim Harrison’s last published set of novellas in his lifetime. This is a thinly camouflaged elegy to the writer who liked to claim he never won an award he had heard of beforehand.
Harrison, who died in March, was as good as anybody writing and better than nearly anybody else. It’s that simple.
His wheelhouse was the novella in a time when the genre was being all but shrugged aside. In his early career, as an admired poet who had published a critically renowned novel, he was so obscure he lived virtually hand to mouth, supplementing his income by hunting and fishing for food. Then he wrote “Legends of the Fall,” a singularly powerful novella that is better known as a movie starring Brad Pitt.
Dismissed widely as a demode guy’s-guy writer in the vein of Hemingway, Harrison crafted story after story in the voices of tenacious females, characters that tossed traditional gender notions on their ear.
In “Dalva,” the novel that caught my eye in the early 1980s in a bookstore, something in the strength in the depiction of the lead character on the cover suggested how good it would be. The first lines suggested the rest:
“It was today — rather yesterday I think — that he told me it was important not to accept life as a brutal approximation. I told him people don’t talk like that in this neighborhood.”
Noted for the darker elements in his depictions, Harrison’s enduring character is almost a lark, Brown Dog, a white raised as an Ojibwa, who lives escapade to escapade fending off whites whose ways don’t interest him.
Harrison lost sight in one eye as a youngster. He wrote with the same telling eye on humans as on the natural environs they are losing grasp of. Listen to this in “The Ancient Minstral”:
“All of Catherine’s limited fishing experience had been about catching supper. This was something else entirely — the men called it ‘pure sport’ but she wasn’t so sure. To be pure why not leave the fish alone and just look at it rather than make it fight for its life? She thought, then chided herself for casting judgment. If people wanted to box, let them box and live with their concussions.”
The title piece of “The Ancient Minstrel” is a sort of biting-the-tongue-in-his-cheek memoir, a critique really, of the aging writer himself. It spares nobody, least of all him:
“Earlier in his career when his writing had him well up a scrawny tree he was bright enough to take a break. He had been forced to admit that you can become stupider as you get older.”
The second piece, “Eggs,” is the story of woman raised by a distant mother and a cowed father, whose lifelong pursuit of raising chickens for eggs counterpoints her dogged intent to become a single mother. It opens, “Only later in life did she learn that chickens are the closest living relatives to dinosaurs” and closes later in her life with one of those classic Harrison day-in-the-life codas, one that would be a spoiler to reveal here.
The third story, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas,” appears at first to be the next chapter in Harrison’s send-up of suspense-novel heroes, the “faux mystery” Detective Sunderson. But in almost a harbinger that the tale would be Harrison’s last, Sunderson’s own nature turns this tale into something darker and more disturbing:
“He heard shots from not that far north on the river. He could see clearly now because the light was growing stronger. A small button buck, so called because its horns were mere nubbins and had not yet grown into a spike horn, failed to clear the fence, three strands of barbed wire where it was loose near the cabin. The button buck failed the jump and became horribly entangled in the barbed wire. ... The deer was a mere boy but lashed out at him so fiercely with its sharp hooves he couldn’t get close enough to cut it out ...”
Understand “The Ancient Minstrels” is not Harrison’s best set of novellas. But understand it is a harrowing swan song. Read it. Go read the rest. Harrison will be missed.
Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter for The Post and Courier.