I was aware of the Harrison Legend: the films made from his work, the friendship with Jack Nicholson, the incomp -rehensible appetite (he once ate a 37-course lunch and lived to write about it).
I GREW UP in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is essentially a New England–size forest with the population density of Siberia. As of this writing, the U.P. has coughed up a Major League pitcher, a couple world-class coaches, and exactly no movie stars, film directors, celebrity chefs, giants of finance, or (as far as I know) porno queens. Its sons and daughters, by and large, dream feasible dreams. For the U.P.’s young writers, though, it is a little different. This difference is largely due to Jim Harrison, who has been publishing fiction and poetry about the U.P. for the past 40 years, a good deal of which was written in a cabin up near Grand Marais, a two-hour drive from Escanaba, the ore town in which I grew up.
My father and Harrison, who is now 73, are old friends. They met through the writer Philip Caputo, with whom my father served in Vietnam. My father, like Caputo and Harrison, is a keen bird hunter, and during my childhood the three of them would hunt woodcock and grouse near Grand Marais. A few times, Harrison came by our house for dinner, seeming less like a man to me than a force of nature with a Pancho Villa mustache.
“Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him.” Or so the London Sunday Times once wrote—a high-mileage blurb Harrison’s publishers have splashed across several of his books. Once I developed an interest in writing, I would sometimes stop and ponder my father’s Harrison collection. I noted the paperback jackets’ comparisons of Harrison to Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but I was also aware of the Harrison Legend, which in the meantime has only grown: the films made from his work, the friendship with Jack Nicholson, the immense foreign readership, the incomprehensible appetite (he once ate a 37-course lunch and lived to write about it). There was also the way he wrestled with nature in his work. For Harrison, the natural world was not something to be cherished because it was pretty; rather, the natural world was something to be howled at, gloriously, in the night.
Imagine my puzzlement. The man who occasionally sat at our dining room table wrote stories set in the U.P., and critics in New York, London, and Paris regarded these stories as literature. Until that point in my life, I had heeded the inadvertent lessons of my English classes: literature was something written by the dead for the bored. Literature was decisively not about any towns I knew.
One day I pulled Harrison’s first novel, Wolf, from my father’s shelf. Subtitled “A False Memoir,” Wolf is about a Harrison stand-in named Swanson who retreats to Upper Michigan after youthful city living in an attempt to spot a wolf in the wild. I stopped at the line where Swanson says something about “the low pelvic mysteries of swamps.” I was 15, and for the first time in my life I underlined a phrase not to retain its information but to acknowledge its mystery.
I followed Wolf with Just Before Dark, a collection of Harrison’s nonfiction. I latched onto its first essay, which moves from an opening account of Harrison ice fishing on the bay in front of my father’s house to an anecdote involving dinner with Orson Welles. How was it possible, in life or in writing, to go from ice fishing in front of our house to dinner with Orson Welles?
The simple fact of Harrison’s existence demonstrated that you could slip from one world to the other, Escanaba to Orson Welles, smuggling literature both ways. Maybe it was time to thank him.
Harrison no longer lives in Michigan. Nine years ago he and his wife, Linda, sold their cabin in the Upper Peninsula and their farm in the Lower Peninsula and relocated to Livingston, Montana, for the summer and Patagonia, Arizona, for the winter. It was the early summer, so off to Montana I went.