Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jim Harrison: The Ancient Minstrel

The Ancient Minstrel. Grove Press, 2016.

Jim Harrison died in March of this year at nearly 80 years of age. The Ancient Minstrel was published on March 1, just a few weeks before his death. Jim Harrison's last published work is the first of his more than 20 works of fiction and 18 volumes of poetry. His Wikipedia article says that he has been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. If this is the case then Ancient Minstrel does not fit the norm. Certainly these two authors did not come to mind as I read the three novellas that make up this collection.

The Ancient Minstrel consists of three novellas, "The Ancient Minstrel," "Eggs," and "The Howling Buddha." In his introduction, Harrison calls them fictionalized memoir. He didn't write straight out memoir because his wife "insisted on being left out," and his two daughters echoed their mother's request. And so we have fictionalized memoir. The first and third novellas feature an aging alcoholic, lecherous man as their central character (two different men), and these two stories book end a very different novella which has a young single woman as its main character.

"The Ancient Minstrel" is the fictionalized memoir. It features an aging writer concerned with drink a flagging libido, and his farm in Montana. He is looking back over his life, which has been made easy by his lucrative film script writing. Despite the slow decay that comes with aging and excessive drinking, the hero enjoys his life on his farm, his friends, and his writing. He and his wife are separated, but see each other regularly and have a tolerant and amiable relationship--an important element in the story. The tension in the novella revolves around the writers purchase of a pregnant sow, his growing relationship with Darling and her litter of piglets and all things pig oriented. Harrison writes of this emotional fixation with colorful and humorous detail.

"Eggs" tells the story of Catherine, a girl who grows up with her brother in a household filled with matrimonial rancor. A family situation which is damaging for both brother and sister. Her brother runs away at an early age and stays away from the family, but Catherine finds relief and a certain amount of peace sitting with the chickens on her paternal grandparents' farm. The farm serves as a retreat for both Catherine and her mother. Her maternal grandparents are in England. Catherine and her mother move there before the second world war breaks out. Eventually Catherine's mother returns to Montana, but Catherine stays with her British grandparents, living through the blitz in all of its horror. Eventually Catherine returns to Montana to live on her grandparents farm, where she raises chickens and lives a carefully constructed, moderate, and intentional life. She becomes intent on having a child, and goes about planning her pregnancy with the same careful thoughtfulness and intention.

Finally, "The Howling Buddha," features Detective Sunderson, a long time Harrison character, whose level of alcoholism and lecherousness make the weakness of the hero of "The Ancient Minstrel" seem mild by comparison. Detective Sunderson likes all women, and, most fatally, he is attracted to underaged girls. While nominally about retrieving the daughter of a friend from a cult, the story is really about Detective Sunderson's last mistake and final act.

Where as the first two novellas have a certain sweetness to them, "The Howling Buddha" is dark and uncompromising in its conclusion.

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