The English Major

JIM HARRISON grew up one-eyed in rural Michigan and turned himself into a poet and novelist who wrote film scripts for Hollywood, some of which became movies, for instance, Legends of the Fall. The English Major is Harrison’s fifteenth work of fiction and goes along with fifteen poetry books, two books of essays, a children’s book, and a memoir. Through the decades Harrison has evolved into a vividly entertaining storyteller and elder, revered for taking sharp if often whimsical scalpels to many varieties of nonsense.

Life as it bungles along, resonating with libido and heartbreak and isolations and aging, is what interests Harrison. He lights up the creatures we actually are without a smidge of neurosis or nervousness about which or what is politically correct or not. He names our common afflictions and pleasures straight out, never equivocating. He just says it.

The English Major is concerned with a sixty-year-old fellow named Cliff, a one-time English teacher who turned to farming. Action is set in motion by a late-life divorce, which sends Cliff driving out into the dark wilds of America, trying to rediscover himself after a drunken doctor describes him as “a raccoon who has been treed by the hounds of life.”

Cliff hooks up with a younger, bipolar, and married former-student lady-friend, and off they go, shacking up in motels, to see what might befall them. Along the way, Cliff stays grounded in the solacing physicality of the world by keeping track of state birds and flowers. In Montana, my home ground, for instance, it’s western meadowlark and Indian paintbrush, which he says is “a flower I have loved since childhood.” Our travelers also enjoy the generosity of Cliff’s tolerant and usefully rich, happily gay and well-adjusted movie-business son. Clearly, this is not a story focused on plausibility or plot or social theories. It’s about our yearnings to be at least commonly cherished.

The English Major isn’t one of Harrison’s major efforts but it does reintroduce us to his enthusiasm for common-sense pleasures like fine food and wines and bird watching and flowers and the consoling psychic usefulness of devotion and ecstatic physical lovemaking. It’s about curiosity, getting out and around, sizing up the world as it is.
While the story is told by a male who indeed appreciates the physical glories of females, Harrison has never been accused of sexism so far as I know, because sexism isn’t what he’s up to. The English Major spins a forgiving dream about the most vital and creative connections and impulses built into our species. It gave me solace to find them so kindly celebrated.