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).
“Quite a few,” he said. “I was thinking, though.” And here he paused. “That writer who hung himself—”
And here I had to pause, for I knew Harrison was thinking of David Foster Wallace. Ten years ago, I published an essay in a men’s magazine about my efforts to quit dipping tobacco. The story was greatly influenced by a couple of marathon conversations with Wallace, who shared the habit. When the essay was published, I was delighted to find that the issue contained an essay by Harrison called “How Men Pray.” Wallace wrote to me about my essay but also made time to compliment “Harrison’s prayer thing,” which he “really liked.” For a young writer, this was indescribable. Two of my literary heroes were talking to each other through me.
Shortly after Dave killed himself, I reread “How Men Pray,” and I remember wondering whether, in the midst of Dave’s torment, he might have found consoling Harrison’s belief that a writer is someone who “consciously or unconsciously takes a vow of obedience to awareness.” Perhaps he would have smiled at Harrison’s belief that the writer’s gift, and curse, is one of “excessive consciousness.”
Harrison brought up Jonathan Franzen’s much discussed New Yorker piece about Wallace, in which Franzen revealed that he could never get Wallace interested in his passion of bird watching. “This is interesting,” Harrison said. “Of the 12 or 13 suicides I’ve known, none of them had any interest in nature. In other words, they had no interest in what Rimbaud called ‘the other.’ The otherness, say, of nature.” They could not make, Harrison said, “that jump out of themselves.”
We were silent for a while. “You know,” Harrison said finally, “he loved his dogs for that last year, but he should’ve been having dogs for 30 years. Every day of the year, the first thing I do after breakfast is take the dogs for a walk. They absolutely depend on it. But it’s also what’s best for me.”
THE HERO OF HARRISON’S forthcoming novel, The Great Leader, is Simon Sunderson, a retired U.P. detective poking around the American southwest in search of a cult leader with a preference for underage girls. Other than Sunderson’s mid-book stoning by some fanatics, very little actually happens. It is a chase novel in which the chase never gets started. While The Great Leader is hugely enjoyable—Harrison is probably incapable of writing a novel that is not enjoyable—it is also slightly shambolic. Several of Harrison’s later novels have a similarly loose-limbed quality: gone is the piano-wire tautness of his earlier books. The language, though, remains stunning, like when Harrison describes U.P. winters as a “vast, dormant god” and describes some men “as a new kind of tooth decay in the mouth of the room.”
What The Great Leader is really about is divorce (Sunderson’s wife has recently left him), napping (a pastime in which Sunderson—like his creator—frequently engages), the appropriation of Native American religion (which is common among cults), and the curse of sexual persistence. Sunderson, Harrison told me, is “sort of in his last push, sexually. And that drives people a little bit crazy, that sense of waning sexuality. We don’t get so much work on what it’s like to be getting older.”
The singular pleasure of age, Harrison said, was “really not giving a shit.” Critics, for instance. “I don’t trust anybody that doesn’t do good work,” he said. “I don’t give them any credibility. If they can’t write, why should I believe anything they have to say?” Quite a few writers I know claim not to read their reviews; Harrison is the only one I believe.