Where tech aligns

Writing Downstream

Jim Harrison embodied a type of author long thought extinct: an adventurer who sought out confrontation with the elements.

A few times, as I read Jim Harrison’s The Search for the Genuine, a collection of nonfiction containing essays, vignettes, and travelogues spanning from 1970 to 2015, I dropped the book and considered bolting out the door like a madman. I even stood up once during a midday Miami thunderstorm, remembering the skinny kid who’d loved murky puddles and rain pelting his face. But before I could make a move, I sat back down like the good, civilized boy I’ve become. The puddle fiend, the connoisseur of tadpoles and frogs, the wild boy I used to be –  before the screens and the Twitter hivemind and the “culture war” came to dominate my life –  apparently no longer exists. 

Now, like a shamefully civilized man who follows “The Discourse,” and who, on especially embarrassing days, is even a participant, I sit and become a vessel for information. The screens bombard me with it, and like all the other civilized fools who nod along and click, click, click, numbing or enraging themselves – depending on their informational cocktail of choice – I take it all in. I didn’t drop Harrison’s book because I hated it, but because it made me hate myself for becoming an information vessel.

Harrison, that great chronicler of America and her natural beauty, and who loved all her critters – human and non-human alike – was shaming me with yet another essay about hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or fishing for tarpon off the coast of Key West. Harrison, unlike me, wasn’t a vessel for information, but for the stuff of life, for life itself. He hunted and fished and drank and walked his beloved dogs, but above all, to the delight of his cultish readership, wrote like a motherfucker. By the time he passed in 2016, after seventy-eight years of sucking every last drop of the sweet – and sometimes bitter – nectar of life, Harrison had written over thirty-five books.

Harrison, best known by the non-literati for his novella, Legends of the Fall – your mom may have seen the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt – was a prodigious writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. He was an echo of a type of author the post-Cold War literary world had happily thought extinct. Harrison was one of the last links to the Hemingway model of writing, in which writers attack the world like adventurers and seek out confrontation with the elements. His wild-man persona attracted the likes of Anthony Bourdain and other writers seeking access to a sage who seemed older than his years and more myth than man. 

But Harrison, as The Search for the Genuine testifies, was human to a fault; he never recovered from the deaths of his father and beloved sister in a car crash, and his sadness, which never left him, permeates the work. His novels and poetry are rooted in the natural world and man’s tenuous place in it, but it’s in his nonfiction that Harrison’s kinship with the mountains, rivers, and forests that buoyed him during the dog days of his life, is most apparent.

Harrison went into the wilderness to lose – and find – himself, and to escape the informational muck that conspires to make us all less than human. 

In “Dream as a Metaphor of Survival,” Harrison writes of how only nature can defeat the debilitating effects of the information: 

There is a not quite comic schism inherent in the idea that on a daily basis the New York Times and All Things Considered tell us everything that is happening in the world, but neglect to include how we are to endure this information. If I had not learned to find solace in the most ordinary preoccupation – cooking, the forest, and the desert – my perceptions and vices by now would have driven me to madness or death. In fact, they very nearly did.

Harrison’s authorial project, and his saving grace, was rebuking the informational muck for the earthly, rejuvenating muck of the outdoors, which is where, as the book’s title so aptly states, he searched for the genuine.

Reading Harrison is as much a confrontation with a worldview completely and refreshingly at odds with the trappings of modern life as the writing itself. Harrison’s style and aesthetics are downstream of that worldview, informed as it is by his longtime Zen Buddhist studies and a naturalist’s obsession with the intricacies of the natural world. All this to say, that The Search for the Genuine will be enjoyed by readers willing to follow Harrison as he traverses the American landscape in search of yet another mountain range out west or a prime fishing spot in a secluded lake, while continuously ruminating on the nature of things; those information-addled readers, however, whose literary diets consist of post-ironic think pieces and the latest masturbatory essay on the “edgy” downtown scene of a certain city, will not connect with Harrison’s rambles and the ramblings they inspired.

Harrison, with his mythos of melancholy manhood, can be polarizing, but as is the case with all great writers, you either get it, or you don’t; those who don’t get it, who bristle at the sight of a weather-beaten, half-blind American man pontificating on the greatness of his bird dogs or the deliciousness of his favorite French wines, will cringe at the earnestness and the wonder inherently present in Harrison’s work. In “Why I Write,” Harrison puts it as simply and beautifully as possible: “Novels and poems are the creeks and rivers coming out of my brain. I continue writing in bleak times to support my wife and daughters, my dogs and cats, to buy wine, whiskey, food. I write as an act of worship to the creatures, landscapes, ideas that I admire, to commemorate the dead, to create new women to love.”

If you find this passage incredibly beautiful, as I do, then The Search for the Genuine, is for you. But if you cringed and found Harrison’s style old-fashioned, or even retrograde – how dare he create new women to love – I urge to you to stand up, wipe that passive-aggressive smirk off your face, grab your computer, and throw it out the window, because it is certainly to blame for your bad taste and resistance to irony-free writing. The tonic for your information-addled aesthetic failure is a book in which writers are described as “mere goats who must see the world we live in but have never discovered.” You might not like this book, but you certainly need it. 

One of the wonders of The Search for the Genuine is that even though it exudes Harrison’s well-earned machismo, he never resorts to the showy posturing that afflicts the work of other masculine writers. The masculine essays in which he hunts and hangs out with his fellow wild men – novelist Thomas McGuane makes several appearances – are great, but the most  affecting pieces are the slice of life meditations that showcase an aged and wise Harrison as he passes through the isolated landscapes that others purposely avoid. In “Life on the Border,” Harrison “walks along the monstrous border fence” as he is “watched by the children on the other side.”

In the hands of a lesser writer, the essay would’ve devolved into a paint-by-numbers think piece about the border crisis, but Harrison, who describes himself as a “left-wing Democrat” and for whom “suffering is a bleakly tantalizing prospect for observation,” does just that – observes the suffering and acts as a witness. Harrison wasn’t on the border to collect information in order to shape it into tired talking points, but simply because he had a “casita” on the Mexico/Arizona line and was making his daily walk. He treated the border just like he treated other isolated locales – a space where the truth shows itself, if only you dare to not look away when it confronts you. Harrison’s interaction with the boys on the border is as lovely as it is devastating: 

One small boy has a sore under his left eye that looks like a red tear. Another tells me that I am ugly. They are amused when I agree. I look above their heads at the hills of Nogales on the Sonoran side. It snowed and rained hard last night, which must have made certain cardboard shacks less-than-effective shelter.

The Mexican boys didn’t have an inkling that they were in the presence of American literary royalty, because it didn’t matter; Harrison, especially, knew that it didn’t matter, which is why it’s fitting that he died in Patagonia, Arizona, in a border town of 900. He was far away from the hubbub and the tastemakers and all the information that seeks to disconnect us from that which is most important, which is the genuine.

Jim Harrison never quite crossed over to the mainstream – not that he wanted to – but very few writers were more beloved or respected by his peers and uncivilized readers than the half-blind goat man. He lived a singular life, a true American original, and The Search for the Genuine offers a glimpse into a life lived on the margins but at the center of what matters.