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).
STATES DO NOT get prettier than Montana. Driving across it is like being trapped in a beer commercial wrapped in the National Anthem. I was supposed to meet Harrison and Linda at the 2nd Street Bistro, Livingston’s best restaurant, at (for some reason) 6:07 p.m. I arrived at six and was seated at a table set with a hefty cheese-and-salami plate, around the edge of which WELCOME HOME JIM AND LINDA had been written in drizzled milk-chocolate script.
Harrison and Linda arrived at 6:07. “My son!” Harrison said. It was the first time I had seen him since 2006, at a party in New York City. At the time, he had been so afflicted with gout that he needed a cane to walk. Now Harrison’s cane was gone; his gout was mostly under control, as was his diabetes. His shingles, however, were dreadful, and he moved as deliberately as a cold-slowed bumblebee.
If you are describing Jim Harrison physically, you are pretty much forced to start with his eye. When he was seven a young girl, her motives unknown, pushed a broken glass bottle into his face, permanently blinding his left eye. When Harrison looks at you straight on, his left eye appears almost cartoonishly miscentered, as if he has taken a blow to the head and needs another, corrective blow to fix the problem. After six decades of double work, his right eye has weakened, as evidenced by a milky blue rim around the iris. But it is an amazing face, an iconic face, and Harrison’s goofy left eye is an essential, defining imperfection.
Everything else about Harrison seems big. His head looks as though it belongs on the end of something a Viking would use to knock down a medieval Danish gate. His body is big, too, but not fat. Rather, it seems full—the body of a skinny person that has been forcibly stuffed with food. Harrison’s face and hands are an identically bright blood-pressure red.
It was something of a relief when we finally took our seats. Linda, whom Harrison has described as “the least defenseless woman I’ve ever known,” sat beside me. She and Harrison have known each other since they were teenagers. One day Harrison spotted her climbing stairs in her riding pants and thought, I must have her. She was 15, he 17.
When I told Linda that I had last seen her when I was 12, she laughed, lightly, as though this were the most absurd thing she had ever heard. Harrison was studying the wine list. “Do you like wine?” he asked me, looking up. Harrison is a wine hound of international note, so this was a bit like being asked by Popeye if you like spinach. The first bottle came and, suddenly, another. I do not recall much of the night after the second bottle’s splendid arrival, and by the end of the evening I felt as though I had been beaten up by our meal. Harrison was in comparable shape. Outside, he hugged me—an act of affection that nearly triggered emesis. He asked if I was familiar with Chief Joseph’s famous dictum of dignified defeat. I nodded. “‘I will fight no more forever,’” I said grandly. Harrison smiled and said, with identical grandiosity, “I will eat no more forever.” Somehow I doubted that.
THIS FALL HARRISON will publish The Great Leader, his 17th work of fiction, and Songs of Unreason, his 14th book of poetry. A large number of these were written in the past 15 years, an unusual burst of late-career fecundity. When I asked him about this, Harrison explained that after a life of travel and carousing, all he did anymore was write and fish. “I’m trying to make my life smaller,” he said.
Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, in 1937. His mother was a homemaker and his father a government agriculturalist who worked with local farmers. He grew up in a close, warm family in what he “was slow to learn … was poverty,” as he writes in his memoir, Off to the Side. After his blinding, Harrison became a “berserk waif” whom Michigan could not hold. He lied about his age and found work as a bellhop at a series of resorts in the American West’s quadrilateral mountain states. He hitchhiked to New York City, where he lost his virginity to a sex worker. In Massachusetts, at 19, he met one of his early literary heroes, Jack Kerouac, who was impressively tanked. Eventually, Harrison returned home and completed a bachelor’s degree long delayed by hoboing at Michigan State, where his classmates included the novelists Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford. McGuane remains Harrison’s close friend: they have exchanged weekly letters for the past 45 years.