I never had the privilege to meet the great American writer Jim Harrison. But I feel like I knew him.
I came to Harrison later than most. I don’t know what kept me away, as so many told me he must be read. They said he was so very good. He was the modern-day Hemingway, yet had a touch of Kerouac and a bit of the poet Gary Snyder mixed in with his lifestyle, his philosophy, and his writing. Harrison was a man of the land. I would like that, they said. He had a Buddhist’s sensitivity. I would like that, too. He loved food and the culinary arts and wrote about them often. I would like that.
Harrison’s most famous work was the novella, Legends of the Fall. But I read that book much later than most. It was The English Major that turned me into a fan. And then I found the book I’m now re-reading in the shed: Just Before Dark.
I loved this book then and I am falling in love with it again. Everything that is truly Jim Harrison is in this volume—travel, sport, food, and the literary life. The only thing it is missing is his poetry and fiction, what he may be most known for. It may seem odd to be so enamored by a book that does not include what most made him famous, but I would argue that this collection of creative nonfiction and essays is his best, most honest writing. If you want to know Jim Harrison’s life, read Just Before Dark. If you want to know the intimacies of a writer’s life, read this book. If you want to know one of America’s greatest modern-day literary minds, read this book.
Re-reading an old friend—any one of your favorite books by one of your favorite authors—is a delight like few others. It’s as if you are reacquainting yourself with your best buddy over a couple of drinks, catching up with his full and passionate life. It doesn’t matter what book or what author it is. That’s for you to decide. I’ve had this experience with other authors and their works—re-reading Hemingway and Kerouac, just to name a couple. But this time with Harrison, I am particularly smitten. I wonder if when I first read him I was less prepared. Not aware. Not literarily savvy enough. Or simply not ready for him. I liked him, yes, but re-reading Just Before Dark, well, it’s as if I’m reading it for the very first time.
If you read nothing of this book, at least seek out the essays “The Fast,” and “The Last Good Country,” or “Night Walking.” They are searing, telling, and brilliant. But if you are not so inclined, I at least urge you to revisit that book you loved back in the day. Your more recent self will find something fresh and astounding about it and its author. I promise you.
Photo credits: John-Mark Smith on Unsplash; Goodreads; Poetry Dispatch