The Essential Jim Harrison: A Reading List

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This weekend brought with it the news that Jim Harrison had died at the age of 78. Harrison remained a prolific author throughout his life: earlier this month, his collection The Ancient Minstrel was published, the second book of his to be released this year. Harrison remains a paradoxical figure: though he certainly had an outsized personality, a willingness to speak his mind, and an acclaimed body of work — there’s also no one single book that’s universally hailed as the best place to start reading him. While other writers of his generation may have favored grandiose and sprawling narratives, Harrison favored succinct and taut forms, with a particular fondness for poetry and the novella. Several of his works were adapted for film over the years, including the novellas Legends of the Fall and Revenge. For a time, Harrison did a substantial amount of writing for the screen: his credits also include the 1994 Jack Nicholson werewolf film Wolf.

In a 1986 interview with The Paris Review, Harrison talked about everything from the childhood accident that left him blind in one eye to his favorite writers (ranging from Gabriel García Márquez to Renata Adler) to his perspective on writing about the outdoors. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how he experienced the world, and the sense of constant motion that ran throughout his life. (He died in the process of working on a poem.) Many critical appraisals of Harrison, whether written in the 1990s or earlier this year, included mention of the fact that his work was constantly evolving. He pushed himself creatively, avoiding the kind of stagnation that can cause a writer’s work and reputation to stumble in later years. There are few writers whose work encompasses so many styles and categories; this list provides a few highlights. 

Legends of the Fall
The novella can be an off-putting length for some: not quite long enough to be a novel, too long to be considered a short story. Harrison was an admirer of the form, having released several collections of novellas over the years. Published in 1979, Legends of the Fall was the first of many, and two of the three works contained within would eventually be turned into films: the title novella, as well as Revenge, adapted by Tony Scott in 1990 after a number of unsuccessful attempts to bring it to the screen. It’s one of his most acclaimed works — and one that’s endured for nearly forty years.

The Great Leader
Harrison’s acclaimed 2011 novel features his distinctive take on the detective novel — both it and 2015’s The Big Seven, with which it shares a protagonist, are subtitled A Faux Mystery. In this novel, a retired detective living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula begins investigating a cult leader; the book that follows encompasses a number of Harrison’s preferred locations. In his review of the novel for The New York Times, Pete Dexter noted that “Jim Harrison can break all the rules he wants and come out smelling like a rose,” which seems like an accurate depiction of Harrison’s strengths as a writer.

“Older Fishing”

While Harrison is best-known for his fiction, that’s far from all that he wrote. His most recent collection of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, was published in January. Harrison also wrote an extensive array of nonfiction — everything from the outdoors to food fell under his purview. His essay “Older Fishing,” from the 2012 anthology Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing, is a fine example of his nonfiction, encompassing everything from rumination on philosophy to memorable images of the outdoors to a thoughtful consideration of how aging has affected his life. There are memorable stories to be found embedded in this one work, laced with a bittersweet tone and an ever-present sense of wonder.

Dalva
Harrison’s 1988 novel Dalva focused on a woman’s search for the teenage son she abandoned years earlier. It falls into the camp of Harrison’s chronicles of complex, flawed families. It also represented something of a shift from his previous work, in that it’s centered around the life of a woman rather than the men who had dominated his earlier books. A decade later, Harrison would revisit some of the same characters in his 1998 novel The Road Home.

The Raw and the Cooked
Harrison projected a larger-than-life figure to many, and his relationship to food represented one aspect of that. For a time, he was Esquire’s food columnist, and he would later find kindred spirits in a certain group of food personalities: Harrison and Mario Batali were friends, and a 2009 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations shot in Montana featured an appearance by Harrison. This 2001 collection of his food writing includes work that he did for Esquire and this magazine, and covers everything from an immersion in French cuisine to the concept of the “Food Bully” to a contrast between harsh winter landscapes and decadent meals.