It is fitting that for his final book, Jim Harrison returns to the novella, a form that he spent more than three decades breathing fresh life into. The Ancient Minstrel, a collection of two novellas and one longish short story, is the author unadorned, warty and ruminative as ever.
The title story is a quasi-memoir; a one-eyed writer more or less alone as he nears the end of his life. Only his obsessions remain: food, nature and sex, the last of which is front and center in this story. Much of the action involves the main character's pursuit and evasion of the bicycle-riding neighborhood nymphet who weeds his garden—think American Pie for the Sansabelt set.
There are a few asides along the way, as the writer explores his beloved France and tricks his estranged wife into housing a pig he buys on a whim. It’s plotless, vintage Harrison in its digressions and moody perseverations.
Eggs, my personal favorite, is the story of Catherine, a fiercely bright woman whose life begins and ends on a farm in the west, taking care of her beloved chickens. Old, alone, yet miles from frail, Catherine reminisces—on life in London during the Blitz, her quest to have a child and the thousands of seemingly meaningless choices that propel a quiet life, lived in the manner one wishes.
The Case of the Howling Buddha marks the swan song for Sunderson, Harrison’s oversexed, erratic gumshoe. Sunderson, whom Harrison fans will recognize from earlier novels, is doing what he does, infiltrating cults, having rash sex with alarmingly young women and ruing a generally wasted life. By the end, he is on the run, both literally and figuratively, one step ahead of a comeuppance he’s ambivalent about avoiding.
Harrison, author of more than 40 books of prose and poetry, died on March 26. A tree-hugger who never shed his own rough bark, he has been compared to both Hemingway and Faulkner, so not surprisingly his characters are often confounding and contradictory, weepy men who brawl, tough guys who hole up for days reading poetry, women who can put a bullet through a man’s leg and then nurse him back to health. But for all their bad behavior, like the author himself they are softened by their ache for the love and the natural world—its deadliness and beauty.
Ian Schwartz reviews and reads from California.