Monday, March 28, 2016
At bottom, Mr. Harrison was not so much like Hemingway as he was like something out of Hemingway. Or, more accurately, something out of Rabelais — a mustachioed, barrel-chested bear of a man whose unapologetic immoderation encompassed a dazzling repertory:Read the whole obit here.
There was the eating. Mr. Harrison once faced down 144 oysters, just to see if he could finish them. (He could.)
There was the drinking. One fine summer, he personally tested 38 varieties of Côtes du Rhône. (“It was like a small wine festival. Just me, really,” he told The Washington Post afterward.)
There was the drugging, in his Hollywood period, when he wrote the screenplays for films including “Revenge” (1990), starring Kevin Costner and based on Mr. Harrison’s novella of that name.
There was the hobnobbing with his spate of famous friends, including Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett.
All these ingredients were titanically encapsulated in a dinner Mr. Harrison once shared with Orson Welles, which involved, he wrote, “a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports” and a chaser of cocaine.
But constructing Mr. Harrison merely as a rough-and-ready man of appetite — a perennial conceit of profile writers, and one he did relatively little to dispel — ignores the deep intellectualism of the writer and his work. In conversation, he could range easily and without affectation over Freud, Kierkegaard, Stravinsky, Zen Buddhism, Greek oral epic and ballet.
An acclaimed poet before he began writing fiction — his collections include “Plain Song” (1965), “The Theory & Practice of Rivers” (1989) and “Songs of Unreason” (2011) — Mr. Harrison received a Guggenheim fellowship for his poetry in 1969.
Throughout his work, Mr. Harrison was intensely concerned with the natural world, though he was probably America’s least effete nature writer. There are no dewy prospects in his poetry and prose, but rather looming, unfathomable landscapes with the power to unleash an almost biblical violence.
Yet for all this — and for all its man-made violence (in “Legends of the Fall,” for instance, one character kills another with a pitchfork) — the world of his fiction is an eminently moral place, one in which vengeance follows violation with a ruthless internal logic.
Counterbalancing the undertow that pulls at Mr. Harrison’s characters are food, alcohol, sex and outdoorsmanship, ideally in combination. As he often said, this restorative cocktail was his own remedy of choice for the bouts of deep depression from which he had suffered all his life.
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”