A writer at life’s banquet
“Here’s the thing about France,” Jim Harrison says. “I’m in Paris and I go to visit the graves of Sartre and De Beauvoir. I sit down on a bench and who is sitting next to me but the old man who buried them. We go off and share a bottle of wine.”
Harrison knows of at least 25 young women in France, where his books sell even better than they do in the U.S. or any of the other 23 countries that love his work, who are named Dalva, after his most famous character in the novel of the same name. “I go over there, they sit in my lap and have their pictures taken.”
No doubt followed by foie gras and a 1961 Margaux.
Because, for Harrison, memories and food are so intertwined as to be one. Which is why his new book, “Off to the Side,” is part memoir and part menu from a 64-year-old writer who is part man and part beast. Well, beast might not be right (although more than one feminist has used the word to describe him). Certainly creature; bear, quail, ox, octopus, pig ... cooked, raw, he’s eaten them all. Every time he eats bear, he says, he dreams about one. This has caused him to cut back on bear meat, for he is also -- though he might not admit it in public -- a deeply spiritual, reverent and grateful man.
Of the 22 hours here in Harrison’s presence, 17 were spent eating and talking; one regrets needing to take five hours for sleep, for surely one has missed something. Known for his legendary vitality and appetite, Harrison has written 11 novels, nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, one children’s book and more screenplays than he cares to remember. His book of essays on food, “The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand” (2001), has just been reissued in paperback. He’s working on a novel that begins on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula -- where he grew up and returns frequently to regain his sanity -- and ends in Veracruz, Mexico, a story that “combines greed, sex and religion in a tight little knot.”
The child of two Swedes, Harrison is ruddy and wild-eyed, courtesy of a little girl who stuck a broken bottle in his left eye and blinded it when he was 7. He is round and he has gout. When he reaches any kind of mental impasse, he rubs his head vigorously, leaving his hair standing up at all angles. Women, all ages, shapes and sizes, are drawn to him as if he could cure them and all the men in the world of lifelessness and cruelty.
When he talks to a woman, he often idly rubs his fingers across her hands, or puts an arm around her or touches her cheek. Rumor has it that he once thanked a woman in a restaurant for her beauty.
Peter Lewis, Harrison’s friend of 25 years and the owner of one of Seattle’s most elegant and friendly four-star restaurants, Campagna, says that for Harrison, “it’s all an adventure in consciousness.” This adventure has, at times, been a frightening journey for the writer, who tells of a lifetime battling an irrepressible depression that can only be beaten back by time spent incommunicado in the wild. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work.
When he was 22 his beloved father, who was 53, and sister Judith, who was 19, were killed by a drunk driver in a head-on collision, leaving Jim, his older brother, John, his mother, little brother David, who was 11, and sister Mary, who was 12. “We never missed kissing each other good night,” Harrison writes, “and now two of us were forever missing.” David, Jim says, did not speak for a year. Jim, says David, was also forever altered.
David and his wife, Cindy, and a nephew have come over from Bainbridge Island to attend Harrison’s reading at Elliott Bay Bookstore. David looks a lot like his brother but softer and less dark. Harrison writes in the memoir that David was reading at a graduate school level by the time he was in kindergarten. David is equally proud of Jim -- he shows off a photo of the writer at 18 and says, “he was the one who was going to do it, he was going to be a writer. Bighearted man,” he says, and kicks at the floor.
About 300 people are crammed into the store to hear Harrison read. The writer knows a lot of people in the crowd and almost all of them stand in line for well over an hour to say hello and have him sign their copies of the memoir. Rick Simonson, the manager for 25 years and architect of a reading series that features one, sometimes two, authors a day, briefly introduces Harrison, who has promised not to read for more than 22 minutes, after which, he feels, most readings lose their edge.
‘An excess of life’
Harrison started with poetry, “felt cramped,” and moved into fiction. “I’m not a kiss-and-tell sort of person,” Harrison tells a guest, by way of explaining the memoir, which covers his childhood, his life as a starving writer, shared with wife Linda, whom he has been married to now for 40 years (“I fell in love with her when I was 14 and I saw her walking up some steps in riding pants”), and their two daughters, Jamie and Anna, and his life in Hollywood.
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he says to several male heads nodding in gray-bearded agreement, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.” Harrison has a way of neutralizing feminist impulses with his sheer, outrageous love for womankind. Just when you think you’ve got him for his love of strippers, he will describe one of them like he’s painting a landscape. It’s unsettling.
Harrison spent 20 years in Hollywood, he says, because it was either that or teach, “and I am temperamentally unsuited for teaching in a really big way.” While “Dalva” and his “Legends of the Fall” were made into movies Harrison likes, his tenure in Hollywood ended when Mike Nichols directed the film based on his novel “Wolf.” “I wanted Dionysian, but he wanted Apollonian. He took my wolf and made it into a Chihuahua. I cracked up for 10 minutes and then went out into the country and stood in front of a wolf den and apologized while my dog hid under the truck.” That was eight years ago and he hasn’t gone back.
And though he loves New York, the city he has visited and lived in since he was an art-struck 19-year-old, its literary society doesn’t thrill him much more than Hollywood. “They argue about who’s better, John Updike or Phillip Roth and, meanwhile, Gabriel Garcia Marquez looms quietly over them all.”
“Don’t worry,” the author says, as his party heads for its third meal in 10 hours. “You don’t need an appetite to eat.” So far, he has eaten pork cheek ravioli, fingerling potatoes stuffed with giblets and innards, frog legs, quail hearts and fava beans with a Chateau du Trignon Rasteau at Campagna. Next up is Salumi, a small, casual restaurant with a large table in the back that serves lunch four days a week and dinner once a week. Dinner reservations must be made three years in advance.
The talk turns seriously and not so seriously to food: Harrison’s recipe for two-skinned pheasant (wrapped in prosciutto); that dinner with writer Bill Buford when Buford made prime rib from Kobe beef with truffles; wild turkeys raised in Michigan and their superiority to those raised in Florida (more variety in the diet); the pigs’ feet stuffed with sweetbreads and the salad of lamb tongue that Harrison cooked in 1995; the 19-course meal Mario Batali cooked in Boston (the best Harrison’s ever had); the 7-pound suckling pig at a restaurant in France; legendary bottles of Barolo the size of 6-year-olds that are all remembered fondly, like love affairs.
Restaurateur Armandino Batali (Mario’s father) brings out a plate of the sausage and prosciutto he is famous for, spiced with fennel and cumin or mace and garlic, side by side with slender strips of tongue. Regulars come and go. “It’s the closest thing to Italy,” one customer says, kissing Batali. The four-hour meal, a piker for these guys, has a sweet rhythm. One is allowed to rest quietly and wait for strength to return or to walk around the block in the fall air while Batali brings plate after plate, and a pasta with black truffle, which is shaved generously and passed around, trailing a forest smell from nose to nose, fondled and patted and shaved again.
Harrison is moved to remember his first girlfriend, an insensitive cheerleader who told him not “to write below the lines,” when he went for her skirt. “Some people have an excess of life,” he says and shrugs. “That time I was in prison in Duluth....” But the talk never strays far from food. Over grilled lamb sausage and Cote Chino and pork meatballs flavored with nutmeg, Harrison tries to explain his 40-year marriage. “How do I know she likes me?” writer Peter Matthiessen once asked Harrison about his own wife. “You never will,” Harrison replied.
Perhaps the couple’s success has something to do with the fact that they eat pasta three times a week. Or with what sister-in-law Cindy Harrison says is Linda’s “ability to live her own life.” “I get the blues on book tours,” Harrison says, “because I miss my family and my dogs and my grandchildren.” To conquer the blues while traveling, Harrison reads Chinese poetry. When he is home, in southern Arizona or Michigan, he walks for hours.
A few years ago an article Harrison was writing about a 19-year-old girl who died of thirst while crossing the border from Mexico sent him into a bad depression. “I had confused her in my mind with my sister Judith, who was also 19 when she died. I was trying, again, to save my sister. And you can’t, you just can’t.” Harrison knew when he lost his sister and father that he had to be an artist. “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?”
Batali brings lardo, the fat cut from a pig’s shoulder, on toast, with a dish of Napa cabbage. Then comes the vin santo with once-baked biscotti, eaten dipped and dripping.
“To kindness,” Harrison says raising a glass, “a simple thing my mother taught me.” He offers an old Navajo trick he uses to begin a new day without “jumping into hell.”
“Bow to the six directions -- north, south, east, west, to the earth and to the sky. Then locate yourself on Earth.” He raises his glass again, and puts one arm around Michelle, the waitress, and one on his friend Lewis’ shoulder, locating himself: at the head of the table, full of sweet and short-lived happiness and well-being.