You can see why Cliff, Jim Harrison's latest protagonist, might be feeling a little off his rocker. Not long after their 40th high-school reunion in rural Michigan, Cliff's wife leaves him for the class dandy, then claims most of the profits from the sale of their cherry farm. Suddenly inspired by a childhood jigsaw puzzle of the United States, he decides to set out cross-country, not stopping until all the states -- and their birds -- have been rechristened.
In southern Minnesota, he picks up MaryBelle, a former student from his decade as an English teacher, who proves a godsend in the sack and a major headache everywhere else. So begins "The English Major," Harrison's 25th book -- less substantial than many of his past works, but no less enjoyable.
After 25 years of farming, Cliff hasn't lost his awe of the natural world. As the road ahead opens and stretches, so does his mind. He reflects on his childhood and early marriage, intermittently facing and avoiding what may be a bleak, broke future.
As a man who has led "a pretty bourgeois life," "like the fish trapped in the spring pool, only maybe they didn't know they were trapped in the spring pool," Cliff is easily pleased -- by a well-cooked slab of farm-raised meat, boisterous sex with his high-maintenance passenger and frequent chances to shoot roadside pictures of Angus cattle. He can't abide "soul-scorching" city traffic, a mention of car bombs on the radio or gadgets like the cell phone that is forced upon him.
What this novel lacks in the sort of ambition common to Harrison's fiction it makes up for with laconic observations that are always efficient, never reductive: "Twenty-five years of routine and suddenly it's evening." "We don't quite get started except on our livelihood which is probably the story of mankind." "...when you are born and raised in the country neuroses are only minimally tolerated. You can be goofy if you're a good worker." "...there is no tourniquet for a self-harried brain."
If America were ever hit by a word recession, Harrison would make out just fine.
This is a book for old friends of the Harrison oeuvre. Reading it is, I imagine, like listening to him ramble over a campfire whiskey after a satisfying meal. Cliff's stream-of-consciousness road journal is occasionally repetitive, peppered with nonsequiturs and cranky geezer laments on the way things used to be, but saved from tedium by his self-awareness and effortless wit: "I have no more time for self-doubt which is a profession in itself for English majors. I must follow my star even if it turns out to be one of those squiggly motes floating through my eyeball."
In Harrison's hands, words like "fanny" and "hidebound" are charming, not dusty. His descriptions of nature are more scattershot, less thoughtful than in some of his greatest works, but still as passionate.
The story sort of peters out in the final chapter, as I suspected it would and didn't care; such an ending suits the main character's matter-of-fact meandering. This is Harrison noodling at his leisure. For longtime fans, no extra dressing is required.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046