It won’t give away too much to say that Jim Harrison’s The English Major is about a once youthful reader of Emerson and Thoreau who became an English teacher to avoid farming but ended up a farmer anyway, at least until his increasingly shark-like realtor of a wife divorces him and sells the land to developers.
Put a different way, it’s about a man cut loose from his life. He’s good-humored and still plenty horny at 60, an old guy road-tripping post-divorce with his much younger, married, bi-polar and former-student girlfriend. He confers on questions of life and lust with his alcoholically Delphic doctor buddy, and leans emotionally on the shoulder of his incredibly well-adjusted, incredibly rich and thoroughly gay movie-business son.
Even more specifically, if somewhat goofily, it’s about a man who methodically develops and only partly delivers on a plan to visit and rename each of the 50 states and some undetermined number of poorly named American birds, avoiding the too-modern ministrations of OnStar and taking pictures of cows on the roadside along the way. The man’s name is Cliff and he is definitely walking the crumbling edge of something.
But The English Major is hardly about plot. There’s a divorce to kick things off, for sure, followed by some automotive wandering in the desert, but then no one even so much as dies. Instead, everyone just deals, and dealing, in Harrison’s gnomic world, is mostly eating, with gusto, fornicating the same way, and ogling women’s bottoms in the meantime. How one of male authordom’s most virile objectifiers manages to escape broad womanly censure is one of the literary mysteries of the age. At the same time, Harrison, fiction’s most unapologetically masculine presence since Norman Mailer, manages to use the word “tummy” more than once, without leaving a scratch on his tough-guy patina. There is magic—no other way for a layman to describe it—in the comfort of Harrison’s bawdy embrace. His characters—and it’s hard to avoid thinking of them as stand-ins for their author—never drive over the ledge into lechery. They just love life large. And they are contagious.
The beginning of wisdom, by one proverbial definition, is to call things by their right name, and that seems like an obvious starting point in any consideration of a novel about a man dealing with a post-midlife turning point who sets off on a jaunt across America not to find himself, or it, but simply to correct errors of nomenclature. But if you’re expecting revelation, forget it. Harrison lets Cliff’s alcoholic doctor buddy deliver the unencouraging prognosis:
“I have to clarify my thinking,” Cliff says.
“That’s impossible,” the alcoholic doctor replies. “You’re trying to start a new life at age sixty which is also impossible. You can only try variations on your common theme. You’re a raccoon who has been treed by the hounds of life.”
“No, I’m not,” Cliff says, but the denial is no use because, well, he is a raccoon treed by the hounds of life. It shouldn’t give too much away to say that by book’s end he’s pretty well proved it.
Plot turns out to be no match for life. This is one of Harrison’s favorite themes—from Legends of the Fall to Wolf to The English Major. Wherever Harrison’s characters start, and wherever they end up, is largely beside the point. Life is what’s happening along the way, and Harrison continues to revel in the earthy humanity of it less neurotically than almost any American writer I can think of. His characters eat pork steak without irony or self-congratulation. They are smart without being terribly proud of it. They sometimes drink whiskey late at night to calm their nerves, but usually have the good sense to stick to non-alcoholic beer before noon. They have sex. Lots of it. Without sounding ridiculous. And even as they find themselves befuddled by dwindling desire (once they’ve had their desires freshly sated, anyway), they’re already coming back for more.
“Art loves biology,” Cliff muses at one point, recollecting a story involving James Joyce and panties.
That statement probably provides the best view into The English Major. In practice, that whole narrative scaffolding about renaming the states and the birds actually looks like a bit of a lark just to get Cliff in a car and on the road, where he can commence fishing, drinking, eating, thinking about his dead dog and appreciating the aesthetic virtues of seemingly every waitress between Montana and Arizona.
Harrison is past 70 now, his laurels long earned, his reputation secure for at least the corporeal duration. Still, he keeps on writing as if there were something left to say—some variation on his common theme—about why people act the way we do. And every time he does, it turns out that there is: We can’t help it. Human wiring is flawed, and sometimes we go up in flames. Sometimes we just smoke a little before we short out. But no matter where we stand in the sun’s cycle, we always want just a little more light at the end of our days.
If there’s an American writer who bathes that truth in a more appealing glow than Harrison, we should all be so lucky to read him.