Jonathan Pappas: The Last Book I Loved, The English Major


When Jim Harrison’s The English Major was published a few years ago, I was working at the Cedar Tavern in New York.  Sarah was the woman I tended bar with on Saturday nights and she’d mentioned that she “worshiped” Harrison.  When the book was warmly reviewed, I told her at work that the new Harrison was out, and the critics liked it.  She said, “A novel?  I’ll never read it. I don’t read his fiction.  Just his poetry. And his autobiography.  I don’t really love his writing–I love him.”  Sarah had lost her father while very young, and freely admitted to a sexual hang-up about dirty old men, but the point is that Harrison is the type of writer who inspires a cultish, protective love.  Like other writers who write frankly and expertly about sex and booze, Harrison’s got that aura of vicarious danger and sleazy attraction.  But as I rather arrogantly told Sarah, that part was totally beside the point. Read the novels, I said, if you really want to honor your cultish love properly.

And still, I didn’t get around to reading The English Major until the book wheeled itself back into my life this year.   When my wife’s grandmother Betty was sick with cancer, The English Major was one of the books on her nightstand.  She knew I’d been writing a novel for a long time.  When she finished The English Major she said to me, “You haven’t let me see your writing, but I bet it sounds just like the writing in this book.  It’s like Bukowski but not disgusting like Bukowski.”

Sarah the bartender always had a torch for Bukowski, even though he was not just dirty and old but dead.  Is there even a real connection between Bukowski and Harrison?  It’s been made before.  Maybe it’s that, for all Harrison’s reliable Midwestern table manners and old-timey names for private parts, one gets the feeling that in real life, he will out-drink and out-eat you, that if you are a comely young woman, he will bone you if given the chance.  But the prevailing literary theme and conflict of Bukowski’s work is ultimately the struggle of the sincere artist.  Harrison gives us characters that contend with a greater variety of universally human concerns, and the jokes are sad and droll and even grim, but not fatalistic.

Likewise–because the notions “fishing writer” and “drinking writer” and “Michigan” are present, Harrison predictably must react to the construct “Ernest Hemingway.”  He does so in The English Major with casual dismissal, having his narrator mention that while he’s stoked to be in the very neck of the woods where Nabokov hunted butterflies, he’s unmoved that it’s also, famously and unavoidably, where Hemingway summered.

Harrison is neither of those guys, though, he’s his own thing.  He’s Jim Harrison, and his proxy character here is Cliff, a sixty-year-old farmer who’s had his cherry farm yanked from under him by divorce. The narrator isn’t a writer but he may as well be.  He’s a former English teacher and longtime outdoorsman and farmer: occupations which allow the character to mull Harrison’s own passions.  The architecture of the story is the road trip.  The narrator has a childhood puzzle of the fifty states, and embarks on a cockamamie project to tour the country while he tosses each puzzle piece out the car window into its respective state. Along the way he intends to rename the states and and re-assign their state birds.  But the fifty states thing is merely a framing device, and an excuse–in every sense–for the character to get out on the road, where he has a funny and graphic affair with a married former student, and contends with various indignities that have to do with being simultaneously alone, aging, on-the-road, and broke.

Why doesn’t any of this feel contrived?  The emotional rift we feel is the loss of dog, farm, home, and wife.  On a tangible level, the suspense is will-they-get-back-together, or will-he-ever-farm-again, or will-he-get-another-dog.  On a barely-sublimated level, there’s an existential arc–subtle and poignant–that has its own suspense, and this is part of Harrison’s genius.

If there’s another Harrison-Bukowski correlation, it has nothing to do with booze or toughness or danger.  It must be called Poets Who Are So Good, They Can Write Supremely Rhythmic and Elegant Fiction Using Plain, Colloquial English.  Harrison has mastered some musical corner of the language that lets the ruminations of his narrators mimic both good poetry and great conversation.  His narrator is fine company, and expresses himself with such simple elegance that you tend to forget that you’re in the hands of a master writer.  You just read and listen. Harrison the poet is also Harrison the novelist, and he’s one who understands plotting, character, jokes, pay-offs, and bittersweet sentiments that revolve until the bitterness seeps away, and you are left with a character that you know and love.

I’m tempted to call it a “perfect novel”–and it is–but not in the sense that it’s a hermetically-sealed piece of engineered clockwork.  It’s baggy and idiosyncratic and feels very personal.  That’s another part of what makes it perfect.

Sarah the bartender is a high school English teacher in Virginia now.  She’s never gotten around to reading The English Major, but maybe she will some day.   Betty wanted to know if she was right about her suspicion of similarity between Harrison and me. Does Harrison’s writing sound like my own writing? I finally read the book, but not before Betty passed away, and I never got a chance to give her my answer, which would have been, simply, “I wish.”

Jonathan Pappas is a fiction writer in Philadelphia who teaches literature at Temple University. He received a creative writing MFA from the New School in New York City, and has been working on a novel for a long time. More from this author →