The Ancient Minstrel, by Jim Harrison
Being a writer myself, I’ve begun to realize how difficult it is to separate what I write from me. Some writers, like the late Jim Harrison (died this year – 2016), don’t bother with such trivialities. Nor did Harrison limit his range of writing to fiction (he was perhaps better known for his poetry), but fiction is the focus here. This slim book is a collection of three novellas, each unique in some way.
The first novella, The Ancient Minstrel, is a brilliant piece of writing; he does something I’ve never seen before. He writes an autobiography as fiction. In doing so, he orients his story – and life – about a bucolic phase raising pigs and going fishing. The joy of this life is there, alongside marital discord, in sometimes repentant tone. I imagine he omits quite a lot about his own foibles, but he writes whimsically, almost sadly of his life, and I believe the essence of that life is on these pages.
The second piece, Eggs, is to this reader a failure. In this story he writes from the point of view of a young woman whose central desire is to have a farm and raise chickens. The story wanders from the woman’s childhood in England during World War II’s “Blitz” to her motherhood, occasionally reaching afield to touch his recurring symbol: eggs. In the end, the story goes on far too long for what Harrison has to say.
The final piece, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, is a comedy, in the end a dark one. And what better way in this day and age, Harrison realizes, to elicit laughter than to focus on humanity’s reproductive and scatological tendencies. His central character here is a retired cop with a sex addiction who has a hard time concealing his desires, particularly those involving a horny sixteen year-old who lives down the street. What we have here is Nabokov in everyman prose.
Harrison’s writing is uneven; at times throwing off story bits as if discarded chewing gum, at other times as brilliant as the Hemingway he seems to be so affected by. What you have here is Jim Harrison, plain and simple.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars
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