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).
“What?” I called back.
“Any other houses,” he said. He was wearing a fleece vest, unbelted pants, and rubber boots. With his cowlicky hair and potbelly, he looked a bit like a friendly garden gnome. When I complimented his view of the mountains, Harrison said, “They’re full of grizzly bears that will kill you.”
His dogs came running up: Mary, an elderly black cocker spaniel, and Zil, a squat-legged Labrador retriever with a stick clamped between her teeth. “Don’t throw her stick,” Harrison told me. “Under any circumstances. It will never end.” Harrison looked at Zil—wet and filthy from a recent dip in the Harrisons’ pond—and shook his head. “She’s such a fuckhead,” he said. “But she’s a free woman. I adore her.”
Linda came out after the dogs and regarded the thermal Patagonia shirt Harrison was wearing beneath his vest. It looked as though it had been recently used as a barmaid’s rag. “That shirt is filthy,” she said.
“I know,” Harrison said. “It must be washed. Eventually.”
Here the Harrisons started telling me about the rattlesnakes. At the dawn of creation, Montana received a generous helping of them. Until recently, an ungodly amount of the serpents considered the Harrisons’ property home turf. Linda admitted that she had long been terrified of snakes but no more: she had stabbed one to death the previous summer. In 2003, one rattler, startled by Harrison’s beloved English setter Rose, reared up and nailed the dog. Rose lived but was so neurologically damaged that Harrison had no choice but to put her down. This was war. On one sanguine afternoon, Harrison shot twenty rattlers. The creatures kept turning up until he hired a local snake guy to find their den, which was gassed. The snake guy filled two barrels with dead rattlers. The thing with rattlers, Harrison said, is this: you have to kill the alpha male. If the alpha male leaves the den and does not return, he will not be followed. Harrison smiled as though this had all sorts of other implications.
He took me inside the main house and showed me his business desk, where he pays his bills and signs his contracts and faxes his handwritten pages to his assistant in Michigan, who types up the work and faxes it back. “I can’t revise except in the type form,” Harrison told me. On the desk, I noticed, were five bottles of aspirin and a letter from Harrison’s French publisher. “Those people saved me financially,” Harrison said. Indeed, Harrison’s books sell in the hundreds of thousands in France, where he is known as the Mozart of the Plains. Over the years, he told me, he has met four or five dozen little French girls named Dalva, the titular heroine of what many regard as Harrison’s best novel. A French critic once told Harrison that his countrymen so adore his books because most American fiction is about “either the life of the mind or the life of action”; Harrison’s books were about both.
Harrison handed me a small steel mess kit, which a Frenchman gave him at a reading a few years ago before hurrying away. Harrison opened it. Inside were a hundred hand-tied trout flies. “This is weeks of work,” said Harrison, who spends a third of the year fishing the rivers around his home. “I’m trying to figure out how to find him and thank him.” He paused. “They don’t have very good fishing in France.”
By now Harrison was smoking. Harrison smokes so much that even when he is not smoking it still seems like he is smoking. As we headed out to his writing studio, he talked. Harrison talks unceasingly, about everything, in an endearingly permanent Midwestern accent that is a cross between Blackbeard the pirate, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, and Harvey Fierstein. His mind is wonderfully crammed with experiences (“I ate a gross of oysters once, to see if I could. I could. I got gout the next morning”) and knowledge (“Certain bears eat 80 pounds of moths a day. Can you imagine?”).