Jim Harrison’s new memoir, Off to the Side, is essentially an owner’s manual for the twenty books of poetry and fiction Harrison has produced over the last thirty years. Longtime readers might have noticed that his disparate array of characters all share a few common sensibilities, including deep admiration for food, nature, alcohol and sex. From the heroines of Dalva and The Woman Lit by Fireflies to the protagonists of Wolf and Legends of the Fall, Harrison’s host of memorable characters are simultaneously original and eerily similar. Off to the Side does not explicitly set out to solve this mystery, but hearing the life story of a man as blessedly consistent in his opinions as Harrison goes a long way toward explaining it.
Not that the world’s been starved for the personal viewpoints of Jim Harrison. Along with his poetry and fiction books, which have appeared in twenty-four languages, he has published over a hundred essays in popular magazines. Readers curious about Harrison have not had to sniff through the pages of novels for a whiff of the real man.
If Off to the Side has a problem, it’s that anyone who’s read Harrison’s 1991 collection of nonfiction, Just Before Dark, will experience a bout of déjà vu as they flip through the middle section of the new memoir, which is comprised of seven essays under the leading title “Obsessions.” This section could have just as accurately been dubbed “Things That Interest Literate American Men.” Among the seven essays are pieces on strippers, religion, hunting and fishing, and alcohol. In the latter essay, Harrison observes, “Hangovers have all the charm of a rattlesnake cracking its jaws as it swallows a toad.”
Bear in mind, though, that you will not learn anything concrete about the world in these seven pieces, except for how the obsessed-over topics fit into Harrison’s life. The only thing missing is an essay entitled “Narcissism.” But it strikes me that the nuts and bolts of narcissism are probably not particularly interesting to a narcissist, even to a funny, very charming one.
The rest of the book, which is divided into “Early Life” and “The Rest of Life,” follows Harrison as he zigzags from dirt-shoveling jobs in Michigan to Key West to Hollywood to Montana. The most worthwhile memoirs come from a lifetime of single-minded pursuit, and Harrison never doubted his vocation for a second. Even the broken bottle that left him blind in one eye at age seven and the car crash that killed his sister and father when Harrison was twenty are configured to make some sort of “literary sense.”
He muses frequently on other writers, ranging from Rimbaud to Tom McGuane, as well as major celebrities from various eras. Harrison gets a financial bailout from Jack Nicholson, sits in an Aspen ski lodge with Art Garfunkel, fishes for tarpon with Jimmy Buffett.
Harrison’s greatest asset is the lyrical quality of his sentences. They would sound cool even to someone who doesn’t speak English. Often, one sentence seems to not much care about what the previous sentence said, but then magically invokes the same emotions.
“Nothing is so murky as the issue of money except perhaps sex,” writes Harrison. In fact, money is one of the primary subjects in Off to the Side. Harrison was raised poor and stayed poor for decades. Only recently did he figure out how to stay financially solvent. His grandparents raised a family on a northern Michigan farm with an annual cash income that never exceeded a thousand dollars. Most early-career writers rely on sources of income that embarrass them: trust funds, tenured spouses, rich parents (or, as Harrison puts it, “lucky sperm”). But when you’re raised to be acutely aware of the financial verities of life, you never get over the impulse to consider everything in monetary terms. And I am not suggesting greed. Harrison describes his wife crying about the prospect of their daughters ending up homeless. But a steady “job” is simply not an option for a committed writer. Toward the book’s conclusion Harrison warns of making too much of one’s own financial ups and downs. “The fact that acquiring a bunch of money doesn’t mean nearly as much as you thought it would is moot. You thought it would and it did very briefly, you spent most of it, and it was a little mysterious how quickly it could go away.”
Of course, another of Harrison’s great skills is rendering the “oneness” of life’s many aspects, a term that he would probably loathe. Off to the Side has all the shitty jobs and good wines and poetic brooding that we’ve come to expect and love from Harrison. But the real beauty of the book lies in those lucid moments of a life well recorded: glimpsing as a child a beloved aunt’s bare breast, reading Nabokov’s Lolita standing in a bookstore because he’s too broke to buy it, watching a wild hog catch and eat a snake, eating dinner with a father who died too young. In Off to the Side, Jim Harrison delivers life in its full but sometimes agonizing splendor.