Jim Harrison’s prose is gorgeous, illuminating. The simple language slides into your head but resonates there because of its subtle and efficient arrangement.
The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison. Grove Press, 272 pages, $25.
By Ted Kehoe
The novella is a curious literary mutant: longer and more meditative than a short story, not as capacious or intricately designed as a novel. But it’s unfair to define the form by what it’s not. Novellas are neither overgrown nor undeveloped—they are as long as they need to be. But why the stories in Jim Harrison’s The Ancient Minstrel had to be the length they are is difficult to say. They meander. They’re episodic. In none is there an obvious inciting event or demonstrable conclusion. For any other writer, this would be damning criticism. But for a writer like Harrison, the lack of narrative arc almost seems beside the point. “The Ancient Minstrel” is the story of a writer and the urges and images that bedevil him. “Eggs” is the story of a woman’s strange and wonderful life as she survives war abroad and familial discord at home. “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” is a zany detective story about a man’s vice that proves to be his undoing. How long to tell the story of a life? How long to sort out the mystery of existence? As long as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Good Earth? Or as short as Tobias Wolf’s “A Bullet in the Brain”? For Harrison, the ideal length, at least for the lives described here, is the novella.
“The Ancient Minstrel” tells the story of an aging writer as he looks back, with chagrin, on his chaotic life. The story smacks of valediction and is by turns wry and earnest. It also amounts to a love letter to his wife, who, in spite of all his philandering and alcoholism and generally disordered behavior, still very much fascinates him. Another mysterious detail about this story is that, in his prefatory note, the author admits that it began as memoir but then his family protested too much and he fictionalized some elements. But which ones? The author has a recurring nightmare about a minstrel show he attended as a boy. He became desperately ill there and the figures onstage took on a totemic quality for him. I am as haunted as the protagonist by this symbol of the writer as ancient minstrel (a fool? an artist?) who is a compulsive performer.
Of the three novellas here, “Eggs” was my favorite, though I did occasionally get lost in imprecise pronoun references (you’ll see what I mean). The scope of the story is enormous. The protagonist lives through the London Blitz. She withstands sexual assault and a love affair with an irreparably damaged veteran. Her family spirals into various sorts of ruin. But the obscure movements of time and circumstance bring her back to the farm in Montana to care for her brood of chickens, and we feel deeply the generative power of those humble birds. As if the whole of civilization might rise again on the backs of a clutch of hens scratching in the dirt.
I don’t know how many young people Harrison knows. But in my experience as a college instructor I have found that young people, like writers in Hollywood, envision regular sex to be the exclusive province of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. The idea of anyone older engaging in sex, even with an age-appropriate partner is “gross” or “creepy.” Young people are curiously puritanical that way. Sex between older men and younger women happens, of course (the Donald), but the fact that Harrison’s (sometimes very) old goats prove so irresistible to (sometimes very) young women strikes me as misrepresentation at best and pathetic fantasy at worst. This ruined “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” for me, which I should have loved as a gonzo version of the detective tale — as dreamed up by Edward Abbey or Thomas Pynchon. But instead I found the yarn contrived and hollow, except for its somber ending.
This book isn’t for everyone. At times, it wasn’t even for me. I was surprised to find, when browsing other reviews, that this volume was seen as a testament to Harrison’s range. These stories do appear so vastly different at first that it seems odd that they are collected in one book. But upon consideration, one notices that all three novellas are mostly about men. Granted, “Eggs” has a female protagonist, Catherine, but she is written against gender stereotype. No problem there, if only the rest of the novella was not so preoccupied with men. In Harrison’s world, even the women have to be men. Remember that famous criticism of Hemingway’s female characters? But the thing that’s so confusing about The Ancient Minstrel is that it seems to aspire be a panegyric to women — in this case, to their durability. The problem is that, as such, it still comes off as clumsy, sexist and, frankly, kind of dated.
Harrison’s prose is gorgeous, illuminating. The simple language slides into your head but resonates there because of its subtle and efficient arrangement. It’s reason enough to read this book. I love the graceful movement from sentence to sentence. This can certainly be put down to the fact that Harrison is also a poet. Some of his grand, sweeping sentences, in the style of Chekhov or Flaubert, contain entire stories. Here’s one:
“A few years later when she discovered her father’s poetry she thought that the better ones were written after her mother left.”
But then these novelistic sentences shift to the immediate, the concrete, the matter-of-fact, as an anodyne against grandiosity. This follows the quote above:
“They were less flowery.”
In spite of my grumblings, I can’t help but like Harrison’s work. There’s wisdom here (“At least he had someone but sometimes someone can be less than nothing”). His characters are deeply and admirably attached to the natural world. Their attention to experience is refreshingly total, consuming. Simple things — caring for animals, a good meal a long walk, a war wound — come to insinuate philosophical truths. Money has little meaning for his figures. It is a thing like sunshine — nice to have but it comes and goes. These are all ways of thinking and being that I aspire to. Maybe you don’t. And, sure, his quixotic characters and their unflinching masculine ideals can sometimes feel tiresome and didactic. Such piety is dull in a dinner companion and death in a main character. Thankfully, Harrison is also aware of the ridiculousness of all our strivings, however tenderly he treats them. His characters want to live well, which is not always the same thing as being good, and that keeps them interesting.
Ted Kehoe was a teaching/writing fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Epoch, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shock Totem. He won Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote Award for Best New Author. He teaches writing at Boston University.