Monday, December 05, 2016

Off to the Side by Jim Harrison

As far as I can recall, this is an unpublished, personal response (though it might be on a blog somewhere) to Jim Harrison's 2002 memoir, Off to the Side.

Off to the Side is not your typical memoir of the current publishing Zeitgeist. There’s no straight through-line of bad boy goes through hell---a constant Survivor show from childhood on---to revelation, reform and what psychologist and author Dan McAdams calls the most characteristic American theme: redemption.

 Or even the celebrity memoir variation of the rise, the fall and the resurrection. So you’re unlikely to see him on Oprah, at least until she wisely chooses one of his books of fiction for her book club.

 That’s not to say there aren’t all those elements in there, although far more modestly than any best-selling memoir would dare. His concern is the texture and the truth of experience, not fulfilling a simplistic pattern, or even enacting an archetypal tale.

 The book is full of the same keen observations, wit and peculiarly artful sentences as his fiction, and even his interviews. Some of the subjects are familiar from those other sources, but he does cover some areas of his life unreported elsewhere, with consideration and candor. But like his characters, he tends to mix memories and times with general observations, staying true to his character’s experiences, and in this case his own writing the memoir. In this connection he chose a very apt epigraph for the book, from Rilke: “Beware, o wanderer, the road is walking, too.” 

 His childhood in Michigan during World War II was immersed in farm life and the natural world, and then by hunting, fishing and the wildlife near his family’s cabin on a lake. There is a quality of his attention then, and therefore later as a writer, that probably owes a lot to the fact that this was a pre-television childhood.

 It was one of the last ones, too. I was among the first generation of children to grow up with TV in the home, beginning when I was 4 or 5. There were advantages to having such wonders as enacted stories in your living room, but also disadvantages. My outdoor longings and experiences lacked informed attention, coherence, confidence or patience. But they were important nevertheless. Then again, though I lived with patches of woods and open fields nearby, I didn’t live on a farm, and my father knew little and cared less about the natural world.

Harrison writes of fishing with his father when he (young Jim) was in the grip of a melancholy time: “He had an uncanny ability to identify weeds, flowers, bushes by smell, and he suddenly said that curiosity will get you through hard times when nothing else.”

 Still, my small town childhood made some moments Harrison recounts familiar and emotionally resonant, as his “tearful pleasure” on a trip to New York, hearing live classical music for the first time in Washington Square, and when again in New York at the age of nineteen, he saw his first actual painting by a great artist (Modigliani), “my eyes brimmed.”

 He was a 4-H boy, and had an adolescent period of extreme Christianity, which involved memorizing large chunks of the King James Bible for contests, a possible key to his prose style. But the major event of his childhood was an accident that left him blind in one eye.

 A sensory disability tends to make the sensitive even more inward, but I believe there are some other little understood effects. I’ve only recently begun to realize how important my own one-ear deafness has been in my relationship to the world. For instance, the natural assumption is that a disability in one of the senses shifts emphasis to the others, as in the cliché of the blind person with extraordinary hearing. But I’ve come to believe a more accurate way to put it is that one focuses all the other senses on the work of the less able one. In my own case, I realize that I don’t “see better” because I’m half-deaf; it’s more that I hear partly with my eyes. And I don’t mean lip-reading, but a more generalized function of pouring visual information into making sense of the world in sound.

Also the quality of attention in the sense in question can become more acute, partly because there’s a subconscious process of filling in the gaps to make sense of the sense data. In my own case I can illustrate the concept with this example: I play a game of identifying the voices of actors in situations where they aren’t seen, mostly in “voice-overs” for TV commercials and documentaries. I am very good at this, even with relatively obscure actors, provided I have seen them as well as heard them in some earlier movies or TV shows. And when I remember who they are, it’s because in my mind I see their faces, and only then recall their names (if I can remember their names at all---a flaw in my ability to prove this.)

 So to me, that Harrison excels at visual description is not paradoxical. I’m sure his hearing and other senses (perhaps he too can identify weeds by smell) contribute to what he sees. It may also be why he has such visually rich dreams and “visions,” as some amazing ones he describes in this book. Not only is his brain assembling visual information from all his senses, but it works hard in doing so. That might also contribute to a feedback of visual imagery in dreams and visions.

 An event that haunted his life occurred when he was 25: his father and beloved sister waited around for him to decide whether he would go with them. He stayed home. A drunken driver hit their car, and killed them both. In this book he touches upon some of the ways this continued to affect him, and it likely adds a certain seriousness, skepticism, melancholy and sense of tragedy to his work. In any case, it is one of those companions that is always there, and often noticed.

 But by then he was happily married, and wondrously it was a marriage that lasted, even through periods of his obliquely described bad behavior. It grounded him in many ways. So his life as a writer, while it included Hollywood and wild times in Key West, also included home and children, usually in modest circumstances.

 My response to this life, as to his success as a novelist, which was one of my most persistent unrealized dream for my life, is the same mixture I feel when I see such a story in a movie, or even on something as vulgar as an awards show: a certain envy, but also a gratitude that at least it happened to somebody, and I can share in it for a moment vicariously. And as I stubbornly if possibly erroneously maintain, a vicarious joy is better than no joy at all.

 Harrison’s life took him to several cities and to academe. In particular he spent some time in Cambridge, Mass., where I had lived, and even though we knew some of the same places, it was at different times. I think I just missed the clubby poetry scene at Grolier’s bookstore, though maybe it was my own diffidence and impatience. Harrison knew the poet Denise Levertov, and had the same high opinion of her as a person that I did, having met her when she spent several days at my college. Later I discovered that when she was living in the Boston area she was good friends with a young poet, who had been among the last group of previous tenants of my apartment in unfashionable East Cambridge. She had been there often, as she confirmed in a postcard, our last communication as it turned out.

 Our respective experiences with other people we knew in common tells more about our respective writing careers. My only memory of the justifiably revered publisher Sam Lawrence (who published Kurt Vonnegut, among others) was a very brief meeting. I don’t even remember sitting down—just the sight of this tall, impressive, kind man, standing and smiling, a roaring fire in his fireplace behind him.

 Sam Lawrence (then at Delacorte) published Harrison’s first collection of novellas, that other publishers wouldn’t touch because nobody would buy it. It was titled Legends of the Fall, and contained that novella, which soon made Harrison famous and rich. The agent who did that deal was Bob Datilla. I met Bob once as well, a somewhat longer meeting. I had a list of ideas for magazine stories, and he suggested magazines to try with each of them, except one, which he said would not sell. I think we talked about book possibilities, but in any event he essentially agreed to represent me.

 Some time later he called me, and said he’d changed his mind. The idea he said wouldn’t work was about the malling of America, which became an article that took up nearly an entire issue of a magazine, and then my first (and so far only) book. Years later, I sent him a letter and a book proposal. He never answered the letter, and sent the proposal back with a huge NO in black defacing it. Needless to say, Bob Datilla is not my favorite agent, even though that’s currently a null set in any case. But he has been Harrison’s agent and a close friend for his entire career.

 The part of this book that’s newest in terms of what Harrison has written in earlier nonfiction and talked about in interviews is his recounting of his experiences in Hollywood. As elsewhere, there’s funny stuff here, and the image of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Connery with Harrison’s barbecue sauce dripping on their white suits is wondrous and hilarious cinema of the mind.

 Harrison worked in Hollywood (without being a resident) writing screenplays. He no longer does that, so even when he describes the venality of the movie business, he does so from a distance, taking into consideration his own self-dramatization and ego.

 Hollywood is just the template for what happens in publishing and related fields these days. So for those who aren’t acquainted with the extreme changes of fortune of an ego-ridden and whim-based industry, some of what happened to Harrison will seem exceptional. Of course, it’s extreme when it happens to you, and for those of us who’ve had similar experiences, there is a certain awe at the magnitude, but a feeling of recognition and solidarity.

 Because at one point, Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall” was slated to be directed by one of the cinema’s all time legendary directors, David Lean, and his novella “Revenge” was scheduled to be directed by another such legend, John Huston. Both movies were to be made by Warners, until the head of the studio retired, and the new regime axed both projects.

 Though he made a lot of money there, few of Harrison’s projects became movies. Still, he got to visit many Indian reservations to research a script on photographer Edward Curtis for director Taylor Hackford, and a sense-boggling trip to Rio for a Lou Adler project. Even a script that he came up with that did get made was a less than happy experience, and a less than good movie: “Wolf” with Jack Nicholson.

 He basically liked the movie version of Legends of the Fall, though he despised the TV movie made from his novel Dalva. He wonders why a movie should be so awful, since “It often seems quite inscrutable because it takes essentially the same energy to make a bad film as a good one,” paraphrasing, perhaps unconsciously, director Francois Truffaut.

 Harrison’s involvement with Hollywood figures began before he’d written his first screenplay. His only long-time novelist friend, Tom McGuane, was first to get tapped by Hollywood, and it was by visiting McGuane on a shoot that Harrison met Jack Nicholson, who then read some of his work, and eventually financed a year of Harrison’s writing when he was in dire financial straits, for a small consideration on any film that might ensue. The project was, of course, “Legends of the Fall,” not only Harrison’s most famous work, but his most talismanic.

 I felt reassured in my own judgments from a distance (or from brief encounters as an interviewer or observer) by Harrison’s generous assessment of some big name Hollywood actors and directors. He got beyond the idol worship and the cynicism to the intelligence and humanity of complex and talented people.

 These personal asides are meant to indicate the kind of interaction between my experience and what I was reading that is part of the experience of every reader. Others would notice and pick out different parts of this book.

 As for direct comment on his work, Harrison is conflicted and sparse. He does say that his novel Warlock is “the only book I’ve ever written that I loathe,” though he doesn’t say why. He refers to moments (when he finished The Road Home) and circumstances, but there is little about how he came to choose a subject (with one exception) or his approach, or methods, etc.

 That one exception is Legends of the Fall, but only that it arose from reading journals of the real William Ludlow (the father, played in the movie by Anthony Hopkins), who was his wife’s grandmother’s father. But there is other information in this memoir that links aspects of his life and thought to his fiction, in content and style. Readers may find it adds interest and texture to reading the fiction, perhaps occasionally illuminating something they find otherwise puzzling.