Alcohol, testosterone and lithium

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He’s the greatest unfashionable writer in America.

If you read Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, and are left unmoved, you should call your life insurance company and demand some cash — because, though your heart may be beating and your lungs still breathing, in real terms you’re dead.

Harrison is the greatest unfashionable writer in America. Although he’s critically regarded as one of the most important authors to emerge from this country in the last 50 years, he’s not the household name that some of his inferiors are — Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver and Philip Roth spring to mind.

This seems particularly bizarre when you consider that he has established himself in every medium. He’s a major novelist, poet and essayist, and has written numerous screenplays. But, although his work has appeared in just about every national magazine, those same magazines don’t write much about him. Journalists don’t fetishize him in the way that they do authors such as Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace — smug college boys whose only weapon is irony.

Harrison is rarely smug and he never indulges in irony. He has expressed contempt for those who do. “With irony, you’re always standing there scratching your tired ass,” he has famously said. His fiction — such classics as Legends of the Fall, Dalva and Wolf — is about survival, not introspection. His nonfiction has dealt with his own personal excesses, his craving for food, alcohol and women, his love of hunting and fishing, his practice of Zen Buddhism and his passion for cooking.

Harrison’s mind is the zone where alcohol, testosterone and lithium meet. He has written that “we deserve pleasure, because we live nasty, brutish lives,” and that his “craving is for the genuine rather than the esoteric.” His gargantuan appetite has become an underground legend. The only man he has dined with who is known to have made him cry for mercy is the late Orson Welles.

While lacking celebrity status in America — something that does not appear to trouble him at all — Harrison is a literary superstar in France. Some French critics have suggested that this may be because he combines the American novel of action with the European novel of ideas. In Harrison’s fiction, people both act and think. And this memoir makes it clear that the same is true of the author.

Most books, however magnificent they may be, can be compared with other books. There are very few works of art that stand entirely alone, appearing to have given birth to themselves, but Off to the Side is one of them. There is no memoir like it, at least not in English.

American autobiographers tend to take one of two approaches: There’s the dry, scholarly, chronological recitation of the external facts — where the author went to school, got his/her first job, etc. And then there’s the fashionable whining, the lurid details of some abuse or other trauma and its resultant psychological hang-ups. Neither of these forms approaches art; one is mere journalism and the other is masturbation.

Harrison, in contrast, has delivered a work of art that, like his novels and poems, will be read for as long as people care about literature. The book’s title comes from Harrison’s belief that an author’s place is on the margins, as an observer rather than a participant. But, in his description of more than six decades of hard living, he almost entirely breaks down the barrier between observer and incident, between inner and outer life.

Memoirs by writers tend to be for fans only. Since writers tend to have uninteresting lives, their memoirs focus extensively on their reasons for writing the books they have written. Harrison dismisses any such possibility with his remark that “nothing is less interesting … than the writer in a productive period.”

So, having told the reader that this decision to become a writer was something akin to a religious calling, Harrison moves along to tell stories of being blinded in one eye as a child, the deaths of his father and sister, marriage, fatherhood, poverty, clinical depression, road trips, lycanthropy (I’m not kidding), cooking, friendships with Jack Nicholson, Thomas McGuane, Jimmy Buffett, Richard Brautigan and Charles Bowden, unexpected wealth and acclaim followed by financial crisis, problems with drugs and alcohol, recovery. …

Harrison’s ferociously intellectual approach to his experiences ensures that even when recounting his harshest tribulations he never comes across as self-indulgent. I found myself moved close to tears by the unpretentious heroism of the book’s final lines:

“I don’t feel an ounce of ‘closure’ about finishing this memoir. I’ll just see how far this life carries me. There’s a lot left to be described. My life could have been otherwise but it wasn’t.”

Barry Graham reviews books from a secret location in the American unconscious. E-mail him at [email protected].

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