JIM HARRISON IS a poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter. He's a naturalist, hunter, fisherman, food and wine gourmet. And if readers were ever in doubt, his new book proves he's also an unapologetic ass man.
The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Harrison's fourth collection of novellas, is chock-full of the author's trademark mix of humor and pathos, aging and aged men, strong and forgiving women, and reverent references to female behinds.
The title novella is an outrageous, rambling "statement to a Coroner's Inquest." The statement's writer, Norman Arnz, 67, is a semi-retired commercial real estate broker and rare book dealer living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The subject of Arnz's statement, Joe Lacort, a brain-damaged outdoorsman, was last seen swimming out into Lake Superior and is presumed dead. As Arnz's report to the coroner unfolds, we learn about the cause of Joe's condition, his brain-damaged adventures, his women.
And we learn a great deal more about Arnz, a goofy old fool who's as charming on paper as he would be insufferable in person. One of Harrison's strengths is his masterly rendition of fools; it's easy for us to laugh at guys like Arnz, because in Harrison's hands, the fool's foibles and frailties are recognizable as our own.
In "I Forgot to Go to Spain," the middle-aged author of a popular series of disposable biographies has an awkward meeting with his ex-wife (they were married for nine days). He broods about hackdom, missed opportunities and unrequited ambitions, and, in the end, finds a mild if tentative happiness. In the hands of a lesser writer, such material would grate. In Harrison's hands, it sparkles.
Harrison's male leads often fall into one of two categories: guys who are fairly miserable despite their wealth, and those who can maintain a carefree happiness in poverty. If the narrators of "Spain" and "Beast" fall into the first category, the main character of "Westward Ho" sits comfortably in the second.
"Westward Ho" is the third installment in the bawdy ballad of Brown Dog, an Indian wastrel trying to recover a cherished bearskin pilfered by Lone Marten, a charlatan Indian activist and white-liberal darling. In L.A., Brown Dog meets Bob Duluth, a drunk gourmand screenwriter who helps him recover the bearskin. Brown Dog is Harrison's alter ego. Bob Duluth, on the other hand, is a parody of Harrison himself in the 1980s. As a successful screenwriter (his Legends of the Fall, Revenge and Farmer were made into films), Harrison has experienced his share of Hollywood's temptations and tortures, and Duluth rings true as Harrison, right down to Duluth's take on anti-smoking laws.
There are similarities between Harrison's subject matter and that of the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. In his novels and short stories, Kawabata displayed a poetic reverence for landscape and young women, important elements in Harrison's writing. Like Kawabata, Harrison has an uncanny knack for recognizing and conveying the importance of younger women in the lives of older men. And if Kawabata's time, place, and culture allowed him to write about the power of young women in ways that would likely raise the ire of puritan assholes here and now, Harrison's fine rendering of similar subject matter is no less poetic in its contemporary American sensibility.
Harrison's sense of humor and choice of subject matter are naturally appealing to men. (In addition to his accomplished and extensive catalog of poetry, fiction, and film, he writes regularly on such topics as French food and fishing for Men's Journal.) But his considerable appeal is not limited to male readers. His convincing and sympathetic portrayals of women, especially in such works as Julip, The Woman Lit By Fireflies and Dalva, have earned him vociferous praise from female readers.
A few years ago, the New York Times Magazine profiled Harrison's keen ability to "write as a woman," and his work has been included in feminist anthologies. So, even on the touchy subject of older men chasing younger women, Harrison, like some sort of mutant macho feminist, earns the respect of female readers--especially those who can read his work with the same sense of humor they employ when faced with the buffoonery of older men.
As for his characters' frequent references to the female derriere, let's just say there's plenty of Harrison in his characters. Last time we drank together, the conversation was wide-ranging and thoughtful and included a lively commentary on the decidedly European construction of the barmaid's ass.