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 DROVE OUT to Harrison’s again the next morning. As I pulled into the driveway, I saw a tall redheaded bird high-stepping around. Inside the house I told Linda I was pretty sure I just saw a turkey. Linda was surprised and asked me to describe it. “That was a pheasant,” she said when I did. “You’re from Escanaba. Shouldn’t you know what a pheasant looks like?”
“Don’t tell Jim,” I said, adding, a moment later, “I’m joking.” She knew I was not joking. I had already confused a crow with a raven in Harrison’s presence. (Harrison: “Most writers know only four birds—hawk, gull, crow, robin.” I could not even fulfill this pathetic mandate!) I thought of one of my best writer friends, who once opened a magazine piece by making note of the “sugar pines” along a hill. I asked my friend how he knew what those trees were; such sensitivity to flora seemed unlike him. My friend told me he had no idea what a sugar pine was. He simply asked someone what kind of trees grew in the area. We both laughed.
The assumption of false authority is a useful writing trick, one I have used again and again, but maybe it’s also insidious. After all, it actually means something to know what things are called. You cannot share anything worth knowing unless you make it clear what you do not know. Harrison refuses to hide his research. If he reads a book to learn about something, the characters in his novels will invariably read the same book. It makes the stuff Harrison does know that much more striking.
Nature is slow, Harrison told me. “That’s how I saw so much—because I was out there all the time. When it’s slow you don’t, of course, always see something. You just see what’s there that day, and sometimes it’s quite extraordinary.”
It’s this patience that has allowed Harrison to write lines so lovely as this: “A creek is more powerful than despair.”
I met Harrison in his writing studio. On his desk was a letter he had begun writing to McGuane; he had gotten as far as “Dear Tom.” Harrison usually writes McGuane on Sunday and was planning to finish the letter before I arrived, but he had fallen asleep. When he woke up, he realized he wanted to tell me something, which was his dislike of “nifty gear” outdoorsmanship such as the kind he imagined was favored by the readers of Outside. He wanted to make sure I got that into the piece. He quickly had second thoughts, though. “Take that out,” he said, waving his hand. A moment later he said, “No, put it in; they need to hear it.”
SOMETIMES WHEN YOU are talking to Harrison, he gets incredibly still. He looks away and starts breathing wheezily from his chest and his eyes fade, and you begin to worry that he is in the middle of a cardiac event. Other times, when he is talking about drinking or writing or his wife or daughters or grandchildren, he becomes boyish, all the wrinkles ironed out of his face and his eyes slits of joy. Other times, when he is losing his patience, he resembles some kind of Indian werebear with a face wrecked by pit fighting. With Harrison it is impossible to feel something so simple as friendship. He seems to me the closest thing we have to a tribal elder. If writers ever required permission to raid another tribe and steal its corn, we would need to ask Harrison. He would listen carefully and judge prudently. We would never doubt his judgment, even when we saw him playing in the stream an hour later.
Harrison lives close to his mind. You sense this more and more the longer you stay with him. You want to know that unmediated part of him, and so you want to tell him things. I was not the only one. At one point in Livingston, during our drive-around, we ran into a young friend of his, who launched into a story about how he and his ex-girlfriend had recently decided to abort their child. But the younger man danced around mentioning this explicitly, forcing Harrison to say, “You mean you killed it?” His younger friend swallowed with a big-eyed blanch, and so did I. Later we met an aspiring screenwriter, who asked Harrison if he would have a look at one of his screenplays. “I couldn’t read a screenplay without puking,” Harrison said. Sometimes politeness was just a way to escape what needed to be said.