The English Major
By Jim Harrison
Sometimes bawdy, sometimes loopy, always witty, Jim Harrison’s picaresque novel The English Major (Grove, 2008) chronicles the cross-country road trip of sixty-something Cliff as he tries to get a grip on his post-divorce, post-farm life.
Freshly divorced, and hornswaggled out of his farm by his ex wife, real estate mover and shaker Vivian, Cliff is inspired to set off cross country to rename all the states and state birds, using a child’s jigsaw puzzle map of the United States as his travel guide. Along the way he’s distracted from his project by an affair with Marybelle, a former student from Cliff’s years as a high school English teacher, by the overdrive lifestyle of his son, a movie producer in San Francisco, and by trout streams, thunderstorms, bad meals, good meals, cell phones and OnStar, as well as his own
sorted and unsorted thoughts.
What makes reading Harrison a pleasure is that there is so much to drink in. Harrison is a sensualist and makes readers feel, hear, taste or smell every experience his characters fall into, from meals to thunderstorms to sex. Here, for instance, is Cliff describing an oncoming thunderstorm after he’s been lost a few hours in the Arizona desert:
I fell asleep and awoke in an hour by my pocket watch to ripping thunder. It crackled and tore through the sky about a mile south of me and there were lightning bolts in the black sky that looked like maps of river systems with splintery little creeks coming out from the main bolts.
As I’ve read more and more of Harrison, he strikes me as a cross between Philip Roth and Henry Miller. He’s capable of Roth’s insights especially into the quirkiness of male sexuality and its twining with male psychology, delivering characters such as Cliff, who charge headlong into journeys of self-understanding, without Roth’s free-floating anxiety. And like Miller, Harrison delights in the sensual, whether it’s food, sex, trout fishing or being caught in a thunderstorm.
Where he differs from the two, especially Roth, is in the fun he seems to have taking readers on journeys with his characters. And each of his characters, in their own way, approach life with a particular attitude, one touched with something like optimism or Zen acceptance, as Cliff demonstrates when he concludes his journey with a return to Michigan, and a return — sort of — to Vivian:
This won’t be a bad life I thought happily. What there is left of it is undetermined but I’ll do fine.