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Off to the Side:
A Memoir


by Jim Harrison
288 pages,
ISBN: 0871138603


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Witty, Passionate Insights as good as Poetry
by Lee Lamothe

When Jim Harrison dies and they autopsy him they'll find a piece of trout, a stripper's garter, a bloody chunk of venison, and the cork from a bottle of some fine old 1961 Lafites. The pathologist will cast a cool eye over the vast corpus¨Harrison cheerfully describes himself as "a tad burly"¨and note that the heart is as large as the brain, the liver looks like a crumbling brick, the single remaining eye in the big head remains aglow and, overall, the entire package is Ó well, pretty much past warranty. I've never seen "too much love of life" as a cause of death, but it's not a bad way to go.
That Harrison is, as The London Sunday Times says "a writer with immortality in him," comes through clearly when looking over reviews of his life's work. With the exception of a recent review of Off to the Side, his new memoir, in which the reviewer¨a dreaded linear thinker¨decided the work jumped around too much, it's tough to find any hint of a false step, a hesitancy, a lack of sureness. (In response to earlier complaints¨made often by female readers¨that his work was too macho, Harrison turned quickly and began developing women characters whose own toughness often rivaled that of his male protagonists.)
Reviewing Harrison requires a bit of prep work, mostly involving binge-ing. And a Jim Harrison binge is terrible thing. There are eleven novels or books of novellas, nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, one children's book, and probably thousands of magazine articles. There are screenplays made from his books¨notably Legends of the Fall. There's a book of essays about Jim Harrison's fiction¨The True Bones of My Life¨written by a PhD who is also the founding president of the Jim Harrison Society in the American Literature Association; this book parses everything that is Harrison. I avoided it until Harrison's recent memoir, Off to the Side, was read and safely out of the way. Too often academic books that examine people of greatness tend to pour warm piss into an otherwise enjoyable cold pitcher of beer. It doesn't change the look a whole lot, but makes it taste funny.
Preparing to take a run at Off to the Side, I¨like a masochistic diner leaving that last succulent piece of seared fois gras to wait on the plate¨re-read the novellas in Legends of the Fall, thumbed through my favourite Harrison book of poetry, The Theory and Practice of Rivers and Other Poems, and snacked on The Raw and the Cooked, a collection of his magazine articles relating to food, gluttony and cooking.
I'd read all of them before and in fact when I travel almost always carry a reading copy of Legends, as well as a second copy as a gift for whomever I'm visiting. As modern literature, I thought, exhausted at the end of the week and despising the fossil mark my bifocals made on my nose, it doesn't get much better than this. I readied myself for disappointment¨a state of preparedness I've been in each time I've picked up a new Harrison book or found a new poem or article¨and jumped into the memoir, expecting a writer's swan song.
In Off to the Side Harrison tells of his often hilarious, often depressed life from a country childhood in Michigan, through the Depression and World War II. He describes his development into a poet and literary novelist, his love of food, wine, women, France, fish and hunting, dogs, nature, native culture, and religion. With a wry but uncynical eye¨he has only one eye¨he writes extensively of his cocaine years as a million-dollar-man in the sucking muck of Hollywood, his encounters with famous folk, from writer Thomas McGuane and poet Denise Levertov, to Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson, as well as of his deep love for his family and the foolishness and greed and beauty of the world that whirls about him.
There's gold on every page of Off to the Side, little nuggets of insight that can be taken as small poetry, or if not poetry, then as wit, and if not wit, then as passion. There seems to be nothing that Harrison isn't an enthusiast of. His lone eye finds beauty in ravens chipping away with their beaks at a huge iceberg to feast on the fish frozen within. It could be said that he was once that raven, the iceberg was the world outside his beloved frozen mid-West, and the fish within were the images and experiences he craved to turn into words.
Finding great writing in Off to the Side is as simple as randomly stabbing your finger into the book, flipping it open, and reading.
As a high school student losing his virginity to a prostitute in a seedy New York City hotel room: "(My friend) Randy went first and she was certainly a short-order cook Ó"
On over-drinking: "The terror of blacking out should stop anyone in their damp tracks Ó The feathers on your chin mean that you ate the parakeet Ó"
On one of his many beloved dogs: "Over the years I had sadly watched him leap ahead of me in age as dogs do Ó"
Of dining with Pierre Trudeau at a poets' convention in Montreal: "(Trudeau) Ó quoted at length and by memory Valery and Rilke in French and German, not the sort of thing Lyndon Johnson was doing at the time Ó"
Of native history: "Never in our history has the public perception differed so profoundly from reality. Native history is still often taught as if these people were all currently deadÓ"
Of the September 11th attacks: "The only conceivable response was a howl as long as the breath could hold it, then to begin again and lapse into prayer Ó"
In all, of the thirty-five random jumps into the book, there were thirty-two pages with examples of superior writing. The other three were only very very good.
Just past his sixty-sixth birthday, Harrison is at the top of his form, examining and exposing himself with the same slightly off-beat Zen-ist eye that slapped flesh onto the bones of his characters. Near the end of Off to the Side he alludes to more stories, more poems, and hopefully more books. That he is constantly writing is apparent: he maintains fax exchanges with friends, some of which contain tiny poems or little diary entries. And even in those¨"Last night the moon fluttered like a round white butterfly"¨there's a Zen mystery: does Harrison live to write, or write to live? ˛
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