A review of Jim Harrison’s latest, from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Harrison sends on the road a character in his 60s named Cliff, an ex-teacher, ex-farmer – hardly a geezer, but in Cliff’s own self-assessment, he’s “an old baloney bull” who has “outaged its effectiveness.” In his 1976 novel “Farmer,” Harrison wrote about another teacher-farmer, who, like Cliff, brooded a lot about farming, teaching, fishing, hunting and sex. Although the two books share a distinctive melancholy, there’s nothing repetitive about “The English Major.” Harrison has been brooding productively about these subjects for 30 years, and he’s become a funnier and deeper writer.
At the beginning of “The English Major,” Cliff’s wife, Vivian, has gone “wayward” and left him for an old high school boyfriend. The farm Cliff has worked for more than 30 years is sold out from under him, and he is left with no wife, no work and the memory of a late, beloved dog. “Wife. Farm. Dog. Gone,” is how Cliff puts it. He decides to take to the road in the company of an old puzzle map of the United States, one that his long-deceased brother used to love. The plan is to drop the puzzle marker for each state into a river as he passes out of the state.
The ensuing trip allows Harrison lots of time to wax hilarious about a great many subjects. Food, for one. (“One thing that has gone wrong in America is the general acceptance of bad ham.”) And sex. (“Given more than enough sex you see that it isn’t the be all and end all of human existence. In you go and out you go.” The excuse for these sexual musings is an ex-student Cliff takes along for part of the journey, one of those not-quite-believable nymphomaniacs who tend to populate geezer novels.
To suggest that “The English Major” seems at times a platform for Harrison’s pronouncements is not to deny that it is also a deeply serious novel, and a satisfying one. Cliff’s dropping of the state markers into rivers is a lovely metaphor for letting go of the past, but Cliff is too much of a reader, and too much of an English teacher (and Harrison too smart a writer), to ignore Faulkner’s dictum about the past never really being past. Soon enough, Cliff experiences both a physical longing to return to his primal landscape and an intellectual longing for his old, farm-blunted intellectual life. (“I had snuffed out the dim bulb in the life of my mind pretending I was exclusively a Son of the Soil.”)
The force of this particular return – to the life of the mind – is one of the novel’s most impressive achievements. Cliff conceives a literary project: Rename all the states with Indian names, and rename all the birds as well. He heads for home (or what’s left of it) with some good ideas, “Reubens” for robins, “Beige Dolorosa” for the brown thrasher.