Recommended summer reading lists always kind of annoy me, unless one of my books is prominently featured, which doesn't happen nearly enough.
First, there are too many books on the lists. Few of us will read 15 novels this summer, and even fewer of us are willing to entrust a three-month season to someone else's literary bent.
There's also the latent idea behind summer reading lists that the books chosen are somehow more fun, dumber, less challenging and in general trashier than the books that we choose to read in spring, fall, winter. Maybe this goes along with the mindlessness promoted by beer-on-the-beach commercials and tourist town chambers of commerce, but it's always struck me as condescending and manipulative.
So, in the name of brevity, and in order to point out a new book by a writer you'll be hearing a lot about in the next year, I'd like to say that Jim Harrison's "Julip" would be as good as any other book you might read this summer, and probably better than most.
Harrison has been an immensely popular writer in rather small circles for the better part of 20 years. He has published seven volumes of poetry, six novels, one book of nonfiction and three collections of novellas. His latest book is made up of three novellas, the title, "Julip" being the first story in the volume.
Harrison's loyal and vocal following has become passionate about his skewed sense of humor, his understated yet powerful command of drama, and the often odd but always interesting characters that populate his stories. (Harrison lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and many of his stories are set there.) Fans have also come to revel in Harrison's language, a truly idiosyncratic combination of the clear, the unexpected, the opinionated, the self-deprecating, the mordant.
Here is a representative Harrison paragraph. It comes halfway through the third and best novella in this volume, "The Beige Dolorosa," which is the story of a 50-year-old English professor fired for a series of politically incorrect offenses of which he is basically innocent. He's visiting friends on an Arizona ranch, trying to figure out what happened, patch up a profoundly interrupted life.
"It was noon, but then who cared? I made a mental note to research time as disease. There are strange things afoot in the universe. Even the obvious fact that I had shown all the alertness of a supermarket mushroom during the long nightmare meant nothing. I was not about to recast my hopes as people make vain New Year's resolutions. I could not remember a single overnight miracle in the sheer tonnage of fiction and poetry I had spent my life reading. There was suddenly the idea that I had learned nothing from this life."
Novellas are an interesting form, and nobody is writing them any better these days than Harrison. Each story is usually about 90 pages long, which, back to the summer-reading-should-be-fun speciousness, makes for a comfortable poolside, morning-at-the-beach, or evening read. A novella is a lot roomier than a short story, and a good one contains all the drama of a novel--but a great deal is left unsaid.
In fact, Harrison's reputation and readership vaulted with his first novella collection, "Legends of the Fall," published in 1978. I just picked up my paperback version of that book, which has been loaned and read so many times (I reread it once a year, generally in the fall) that the back cover is gone, the front is ready to fall off and the pages are dog-eared, dog-chewed and ready to spill from the binding.
"Legends of the Fall" is just that good. The first of the stories is probably the best Harrison has ever written, titled simply, "Revenge." At its center is a tragic romance that ends up taking not only a life, but the souls of the three characters involved. It's as good a romance--and a story about men--as I've ever read. ("Revenge" was made into a movie a few years ago that was clobbered pretty soundly by critics, and bombed in spite of stars Kevin Costner, Madeline Stowe and Anthony Quinn, but was actually pretty good, I thought. Don't see it before you read the book.)
One of Harrison's great skills--and perhaps one of the reasons he hasn't reached a mass audience yet--is his wonderful unpredictability. The story following "Revenge," for instance, is a truly comic tale about a mid-life crisis called "The Man Who Gave Up His Name." His 1981 novel, "Warlock" is richly comic too, while his critically acclaimed "Dalva" is brooding, mysterious, poetic. In one of his Esquire magazine food columns (he's a notorious, self-described glutton), Harrison once said something about trying to remain "a moving target," which describes perfectly his wide swings between comedy and drama. To get both, as you do in "Julip," is a terrific value at $21.95.
Besides the high quality of the three stories in "Julip"--the title story, "The Seven-Ounce Man" and "The Beige Dolorosa" --there's another reason that this book may be of interest to you. Harrison is an American writer who is now coming into a richly deserved bit of mega-success, oddly enough, via Hollywood. The movie "Wolf," written by Harrison, opened to mixed reviews and fine box office last month. It stars Jack Nicholson--a longtime friend and supporter of the writer--and Michelle Pfeiffer. Later this year, "Legends of the Fall" (the title story of that volume) will hit the screen.
It's certainly gratifying to see Harrison getting famous, though perhaps a little distressing that it has taken movies of his books, rather than the books themselves, to do it. It's ironic too that he's bad-mouthed Hollywood generously in his stories and articles, though always with the confession that he's after the lucre and notoriety that Hollywood can bestow on novelists. He once said that he was a poet who wrote novels to support his poetry (something like that), and it now seems apparent that he's a novelist who writes screenplays to support his novels.
What's most important, though, is that a person not compromise the quality of what he or she does in order to find success in it, and Harrison has not. There's a wonderful resilience in "Julip," a richness and a sense of fun that are hard to find in books these days. Books like this are what summer reading should be about.
* His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.