Richard Flanagan Remembers Jim Harrison
He Viewed the World and All Things Within it With Weary Wonder
Jim was kind to me when I was nothing much as a writer because, I suspect, being a writer as good he was in America was nothing much either. Making it as a writer in the USA, he told me, was like getting to be second piccolo for a mid-west orchestra, something, but not a lot. The people that believed in him never stopped believing in him—his readers, booksellers, his publishers, Grove, and the French, whose esteem bemused Jim, but allowed him some marvellous meals. When I was about to embark on a French book tour, Jim’s sole advice was the address of a Normandy restaurant whose duck with poire william I was not to miss.
He had an intoxicating flow of conversation that, like the best of his writing, could hit high and low registers in a single sentence, swinging from a gloss of a classical Chinese poem to a ribald comment. Once, after a long night at an American writers’ festival, Jim and I found ourselves the next morning at the back of a hall listening to some obligatory opening comments. Jim was there with his normal entourage of women tittering at Jim’s jokes—jokes that I had understood to be no longer permitted in bourgeois USA. But Jim lived by his own compass. I confessed to Jim I had a hell of a hangover. With his one good eye and his one blind eye, I never really knew if Jim was at such moments looking at me or women, but it’s safe to guess he was speaking more for the women than for me.
“A wise old Indian once said to me: Got a hangover?” Jim said—his voice, as ever, soft bitumen slowly worked through a coarse mouli. “Get a fat woman to sit on your face.”
At which the entourage of woman tittered wildly, as they always did. I knew a woman in one bookshop who used dress up as a girl scout when Jim passed through on tour simply to please him. It pleased him very much. Some readers may infer from this something venal, or offensive. But with Jim there was nothing sinister or threatening. It was a beautiful joke: about him, you, me, us.
His work, like his jokes, rubbed against the grain of his times to reveal its nature, in the way literature must, but so rarely does. He was a lovely man, a hold out of some spirit I fear is in eclipse in American writing, subversive, wild, tragi-comic, moonlit. He viewed the world and all things within it—plants, animals, birds, food, women, men, books—with weary wonder, but wonder nevertheless. It was his defence against nothingness, of which he was also not unaware, and which he finally vanquished with the sum of his writings. I will miss him very much.
Watch: A few months before Jim Harrison’s death, Grove Atlantic associate publisher Judy Hottensen was able to spend the day with the award-winning writer.