The English Major reviewed by Steve Miller

Book Reviews
The English Major reviewed by Steve Miller
Oct 22, 2008, 16:07


THE ENGLISH MAJOR   by Jim Harrison; Grove Press, 2008 

Michiganders revere Harrison for making our state the setting for most of his non-fiction, a tribute from a man who has become a critical favorite nationally. Largely unknown until the 80s, Harrison treads some of the same literary ground as Hemmingway with a bit less macho posing. His big money/notoriety comes from selling the book Legends of the Fall to Hollywood in the 1990s, so power lunches aren't an anomaly for the rural author, a beast of a man in terms of both girth and appearance—he has one glass eye which tilts sideways in even the most flattering photo, giving him the appearance of a Quasimodo with a flair for the pen.

His forte has always been tales that merge the academic world, the Great North, a dash of foodie and numerous nymphs who crave the attention of a protagonist who is at the very least loosely based on the writer himself. Toss in some Indian lore as well once in a while.

The English Major is classic Harrison in that regard. Cliff is a 60-year-old man whose same aged wife has just left him for her high school sweetheart shortly after the couple attended its 40th high school reunion. They live in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula, and Cliff, upon the breakup, realizes that he has never seen much of the world, toiling first as a high school English teacher and then as the primary caretaker of a farm he and his departed spouse inherited.

In his battered Ford Taurus, Cliff embarks on a soul-searching trip of 100 days, intent on seeing each of the lower 48 states. Shit happens as he only makes it across the top of the U.S. in a bumbling journey that keeps a reader both interested and irritated. His injection of tidbits of what must be wisdom in his eyes is pompous: “A woman in a hammock is always faithful,” opines one character, a former schoolmate of Cliff who lives in the Arizona desert with a youthful meth addict for a girlfriend. There are more of these trite clichés and they all just make Harrison seem like a fading writer whose best days are behind him. Or maybe he needed something to give a pleading editor and this book his version of dialing it in.  He tosses in a gay son, a nymphomaniac former student and some unlikely road acquaintances. Yea, you probably saw this movie somewhere, sometime.

Harrison is a smart writer who, in The English Major, takes the low road that Bukowski made a career of. Fine for Bukowski; the low road of obvious and literal was made for people like him. Harrison has much more to give and his fuller life imparts wisdom and sadness, two enviable pieces of baggage that everyone should aspire to.

By all means, don't give up on the man. He gave us greatness including A Good Day to Die, the three-novella collection that is Julip and his food and culture column collection, The Raw and the Cooked. With such a legacy, we can give the man a break. He's 71 and still working. Let us know what you're up to at that age.



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