Nowhere to go but the wide-open road
“The ENGLISH Major” is to midlife crisis what “The Catcher in the Rye” is to adolescence. Now, midlife crisis has a pejorative ring to it -- the idea being that the afflicted party (male or female) flips out and behaves in an erratic fashion, leaving broken homes and shattered relationships and debt burdens and frightened children. There’s another way to look at this, and it’s the way Harrison, with great affection, chooses to look at his main character, Cliff, who is 60. Viv, Cliff’s extremely unlikable wife of 38 years, has unceremoniously dumped him for a guy in a sports car. Worse, she has won 80% of the family farm (his family’s farm) in the divorce; she’s “developing” the property and selling it for a million dollars. Their gay son Robert, who lives in San Francisco and makes gobs of money making movies, will get 10%, leaving Cliff, who has been a farmer first and a high school English teacher second, with next to nothing. No farm, no cherries to harvest, no cattle to worry over and no livelihood.
Cliff takes to the highway in his almost-dead Taurus. On the back seat is a puzzle of the United States. Each time he crosses a border, Cliff throws out the window the piece corresponding to the state he has just left behind. He drives. He remembers. There is no question that he misses his dog Lola, who has recently died, more than Viv, who is mostly remembered for her weight problems and her big breasts. With his boozy affections and preoccupation with his penis -- every little movement, every passing thought: It is no exaggeration to say that at least 50%, more like 60%, of Cliff’s thoughts are about it -- Cliff doesn’t seem like someone who can have a fulfilling relationship, and he knows it.
So here is Cliff, set loose in America. For a few days he hooks up with an old student, Mirabelle, who spends way too much time on her cellphone, represents everything bad about distracted, modern life and constantly has sex with him -- until even Cliff is dreading going to bed at night with her and begins thinking he would like a monastic new life.
Just when you want to leave Cliff in the dust, in some motel with a bottle of whiskey and a sexually transmitted disease, he finally gives you something to like (ladies, ain’t it the truth?). He remembers his brother, Teddy, born with Down syndrome, who drowned when he was 11 and Cliff was 13. You fall in love with his educated misanthropy, his faith in literature, his vitality and even his lumbering revelations. “What bothered me,” he thinks one night, “was the idea that my own script and most of the human race’s had been written for us.”
Here’s where you realize that a midlife crisis might be just the thing, a wake-up call to write your own script. Harrison’s affection for his character helps a reader to root for Cliff, unmoored, looking for a vision of a future he can stand. Cliff decides to rename the states and the birds. He will name the states by the Native American tribes that lived there. Viv wants him back, but instead, he will stake a claim on his grandfather’s remote cabin and 40 acres. When he wants a woman, he’ll go into town and get one.
I believe in Jim Harrison. His last novel, “Returning to Earth,” was rare and beautiful, with all the wild human nature he reminds us to long for. Without any preachiness or sentiment, Harrison gives us more than one dimension to live on. He gives us the four directions. But he is too hard on women in this novel, too callous, too shallow, and it makes his very sentence structure choppy and lopsided. There is no law that says a novel must contain likable, even wholly rendered women. Cliff has been burned, and he’s limping along on three legs. But his desperate, insulting, whiny refusal to see them as more than tasty morsels lasts long after Cliff has changed. Fine, Viv got fat and surly when she left the house to take a job in real estate; Mirabelle is a flake. And Sylvia, the waitress in Montana, is probably “a daughter of Sappho” because she won’t have sex with him. Waitresses are fun to sleep with because they smell like food. Too much. It contorts the story; it contorts Cliff’s progress as a character.
“The English Major” feels like a novel that has taken too much Viagra. Sure, “art loves biology,” art needs biology. But need is not the same as love. Need has a different voice. Cliff finds some peace in the end, only by breaking free of his gruff narrator, getting a new dog, finishing his project and giving his penis a rest.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.