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Go Out With a Bang

I USED TO HAVE a recurring nightmare about climbing a fragile ladder straight up into the sky. The ladder wasn’t leaning against anything and the only way I could keep it balanced was to continue to climb as fast as possible. The view was great, but inevitably the ladder would topple and I’d fall to my death, over and over as the dream occurred. Needless to say things weren’t going well back then. I was trying to support a wife and two daughters on less than ten grand a year. Things got better after I wrote Legends of the Fall, and I no longer have this desperate dream.

I grew up on a farm for a while where death is so obvious. You chop the head off the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Your favorite piglet dies for no reason. A massive draft horse drops dead while plowing, still in the harness. Quite a job to bury it.

As I aged, I expected to think about death far more than I do. My favorite epitaph is the one that my hero, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote for himself, “We loved the earth but could not stay.” Wonderfully concise. But what do we do before we go? As a writer I’ve never stopped. I’ve written more in my seventies than ever before. Of course, I frequently wear out, a condition I have countered by becoming a master of naps. The first of the day comes in the morning, soon after walking the dog and five cups of coffee. Coffee has never kept me awake an extra minute. I doze about 20 minutes under the idea that I’m clearing my head, maybe an illusion, but then it works. The next nap is what Henry Miller called a “full dress nap.” It comes after lunch, the official siesta time in Spain. This one takes an hour or more. You have to take off your clothes and get in bed. At no time may any nap be taken with your socks on. This is likely a superstition, but I stick to it. I also believe in the Resurrection, because it never occurred to me to stop believing in it. The third nap takes place after dinner and is a matter of habit. For years I had to work at full-time jobs and then write at night. I’d take a nap after dinner and then work until well after midnight. I still take the naps but rarely work at night anymore, because my mind would become clinically fugal, which means that it would slide into an uncontrollable whirl. Not pleasant.

I have been teased relentlessly by laymen and other writers about my naps, but then I just published The River Swimmer, my thirty-sixth book, and they didn’t. In Buddhist terms, my naps are a Noble Truth. My father’s message was, “Get your work done,” and I am still at it. I’ve had books published in 29 countries, which mystifies me. There was the recent addition of Bulgaria. Why do they want American fiction in Bulgaria? Would Bolivia be better?

Aging brings around illnesses beyond the head-cold range. Late last fall, I had extensive spinal surgery, and the recovery hasn’t been fun. Before surgery I couldn’t walk at all, which was hard on my dog, who became melancholy without our walks. After surgery, I wasn’t recovering fast enough and was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where I learned to walk again, a pleasant talent compared with sitting. I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.

Which brings up the sporting life. For 30 years, I spent a couple of months each fall and winter hunting game birds—grouse, woodcock, quail, and doves—in various parts of this country. I loved it, even for eight exhausting hours a day. After my spinal problem, I can’t keep up with my friends and bird dogs anymore. I have thus perfected the art of log sitting. Similar to a bed and naps, I find a nice log and sit on it, usually for as much as 40 minutes. My bird dog occasionally comes back for a visit, perhaps to commiserate, and then she is off again to where the action is, her singular imperative. I don’t mind. I’m old, semi-crippled, and want her to have a good time. She was my main motive for back surgery. Dogs don’t live long and deserve walks every day.

Of course, your sexuality vastly diminishes in your seventies. Perhaps this is the gods getting you out of the gene pool. You used to while away hours concocting electric fantasies, but now you are far too realistic and pragmatic. You know very well that those beautiful girls and women you see wandering around New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t pray after work, “Lord, gimme a geezer tonight.” This is hard to accept, but don’t sit under an apple tree until you get the long-lost constant hard-on that plagued your youth. The apples will ripen and fall on your head before anything happens. I’ve read that you don’t help matters by drinking and smoking too much, but these ingrained habits help me want to live. French red wine is as necessary as oxygen for me.

As a matter of plain fact, life has become pleasantly smaller and simpler. Lucky for me I live in Montana and can still fly-fish for trout. About 90 days a summer and fall will find me gliding down rivers in a guide boat. When I get even older, we’ll drop an easy chair into the bow. I can make the throw sitting down because I had 20 years of salt-water fly-casting in Key West. Those were wild days and nights, with social diseases lurking in the alleys. I lived through them and try not to think about them anymore. They were just life in its simpleminded prime. Now I’m so wise, I share nasty oatmeal with the dog. She’s getting older but still loves life.

Jim Harrison's Brown Dog, a collection of novellas, will be published in December by Grove Press.

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Two New Master Works on Espionage and Globalization

The fall book season opens with ambitious works by two heavyweights, Bob Shacochis and Scott Anderson, writing on empire and the making of the modern world. It’s been two decades since Shacochis’s last novel, Swimming in the Volcano, and the Outside contributing editor’s new offering, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, doesn’t disappoint. Woman is a masterful novel with the power to shake the bones of Graham Greene. The title character is Dottie Chambers, a.k.a. Jackie Scott, a.k.a. Renee Gardner, an American secret agent with a penchant for self-reinvention and a keen interest in Haitian voodoo. Her violent death in Haiti entwines human-rights lawyer Tom Harrington and Delta Force operative Eville Burnette in a mystery that grows to encompass Croatia, Kenya, Pakistan, the Cali Cartel, and the geopolitical run-up to 9/11.

Harrington’s a classic Shacochis character—an ex-journo turned war-criminal hunter working the dark seams of Port-au-Prince—but the book belongs to Burnette, a Montana boy caught up in intrigue far beyond his pay grade. “We’re not interested in winning hearts and minds,” a Delta leader tells him. “For our guys, hearts and minds are targets. We shoot hearts and minds.” Burnette finds himself recruited into a defense undersecretary’s network of operatives running dark ops with (and against) Pakistani colonels, Mexican drug lords, and Saudis trying to foment jihad. This is no mere thriller, though; Woman is a book of deep beauty thanks to Shacochis’s hard-earned observations on war, justice, and U.S. naiveté. Americans, Shacochis writes, never took faraway, struggling nations seriously “until their faces were rubbed in the awfulness they sometimes made when they were seized by the exalted passion to remake the world.”

Like Shacochis, Anderson is concerned with the origins of our modern mess. A veteran war correspondent with extensive experience in the Middle East, he traces the genesis of the region’s fractious present back to T. E. Lawrence and the big bang of World War I.

In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Anderson chronicles the intersecting paths of Lawrence, the charismatic British Army officer, and three others whose Great War espionage, influence, and skullduggery cracked the Ottoman Empire apart. Anderson leaves no clandestine pact or subtle double cross unmentioned. The other main players—an American oilman turned spy, a Jewish agronomist with Zionist designs on Palestine, and a German agent trying to incite anti-British sentiment among Muslims—are compelling, but they can’t compete with the brilliant Lawrence, who adapted to Arab culture and crossed deserts only Bedouin could survive.

Everything you remember from the film Lawrence of Arabia is here, including his role in the daring 1916 Arab raid on Ottoman Empire forces in Aqaba and his failed dream of estab-lishing an Arab state. Anderson’s final chapter brilliantly stitches together the ways in which all the machinations of the Great War led to the troubles of the past century—“a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships.” Anderson, like Shacochis, reminds us that today’s small conflicts and porous borders will surely blow up into tomorrow’s larger war. We just don’t know when.

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6 Hot Reads for Summer 2013

It’s time to build your summer stack: that squatty tower made up of equal parts brain candy, literati buzz, and guilty pleasure. This year’s juiciest offerings feature an African aid-work hustler, a monster in backcountry Alaska, a drifter in Hawaii, a Spaniard obsessed with murder and cheese, and a trio of river rats who risk jail and damnation to become legends of the Grand Canyon.

Start with The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Outside contributing editor Kevin Fedarko (read an excerpt here). In the spring of 1983, snowmelt and rainstorms threatened to blow out Glen Canyon Dam, the concrete plug that harnesses the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon. To ease the pressure, dam engineers sent a raging pulse of water through the Canyon. A trio of grizzled river guides responded like Laird Hamilton to a buoy report: Launch time! Fedarko, a Colorado River boatman himself, crafts a dramatic tale of courage and hubris that encompasses the sweeping history of the Canyon.

An eminence grise of travel writing, Edward Hoagland reminds us that he is also a nimble novelist in Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse. Children follows the transient life of Hickey, an American freelance aid worker who moves food and medicine through battle zones and bandit alleys, offering a vivid window into the continent’s hot spots. About an outlaw militia’s airstrip in the Congo, Hoagland writes, “There are no police or consular officials or coroners: just vultures to do the autopsy and record the fingerprints and dentistry. You’d be recycled into wings.”

For a comic break, turn to Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey’s adventure novel set in a bizarro slice of paradise, where the narrator goes to escape his creditors. Handey’s burlesque works best in small doses, so take one bite at a time.

Having redefined the road-trip memoir in Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, Michael Paterniti travels into new territory with The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. In his quest to find the mejor queso del mundo, Paterniti discovers a Spanish cheesemaker caught up in a clash between the old and new worlds. Wealthy First World foodies beat a path to the poor cheese-maker’s door—destroying him in the process. “When you put something alive in your mouth,” the old master tells Paterniti, “it makes you more alive.” But the arrival of global commerce can suck the life right out of that perfect moment.

Best for last: for those awaiting the next Jon Krakauer–esque classic, look to an Alaskan writer named Tom Kizzia. Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier spins the spellbinding tale of the Papa Pilgrim family, a homespun clan that charmed the Alaskan locals with their old-timey government-hating ways—right up until the day the eldest daughter exposed Papa as an abusive patriarch who terrorized his family. It’s a gripping nonfiction thriller told with masterful clarity, and I’m betting it will be the sleeper hit of the summer. Put it at the top of your stack.

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