The writer -- whose new novel The English Major, a Kerouac-like road novel with Whitman-like sensibilities, is garnering widespread praise -- is also noted for his outsized ego. And though ego can insulate against public pressures, it is little help against personal anguish.
So when 70 year-old Harrison finished last years Returning To Earth, compelled in part by the death of his older brother John, he needed a reprieve. After I finished Returning to Earth, which is a tale of considerable melancholy, I was trying to figure out how to levitate my spirits, he says over the phone from his home outside Livingston, Montana, inhaling audibly on an American Spirit cigarette.
I began (writing the English Major) four days after finishing Returning to Earth. I usually wait months.
He admits the idea came to him more than 40 years ago. I thought about it first in the 60s, when I was at Stony Brook (in New York). It wasnt very pleasant, he says about his brief teaching stint. I was terribly homesick.
The new book, set early and late in the Boyne City area, combines levity with loss and uncertainty with unwillingness. When his wife comes back to a class reunion picnic with grass stains on her knees, 60-year-old Cliff discovers his companion of nearly 40 years, Vivian, is having an affair with an old high school flame. Distraught and disbelieving, Cliff is further crushed when he thinks hes run over his best dog Lola with his aging Taurus.
Marriages can become quite disheveled due to overexposure, Harrison says of Cliff and Vivians deterioration. Cliff couldnt survive the growing boredom between the two of them.
Lola didnt succumb to the Taurus, but Cliff largely succumbs to his wifes affair. Vivian, lately selling real estate near their comfortable farm, has sold out and Cliff finds all he wants to do is light out.
A former English teacher turned cherry farmer, Cliff is prototypical Harrison, his agrarian attitudes tempered with literary aspirations and refined tastes in all things sensuous, from fine food to fine women.
Before I can write anything, I have to pin it down geographically, Harrison says of his approach to his work.
Im always wondering, in the aging process, what would happen to a guy who just sort of went flat, he says of his new book. Its almost the flip side of Farmer, his 1976 novel about school teacher Joseph who finds his emotions and libido pulled in competing directions.
Propelled by the affair and Vivians announcement that shes sold the farm theyve shared since her father died, while fishing perch up in the Les Cheneaux Islands near Cedarville, Cliff determines not just to light out, but to journey with a purpose. Inspired by a childhood puzzle of the United States, he decides the states need new names and the state birds should be renamed as well. Each of our United States must have an Indian name for a tribe that originally inhabited the area, he realizes in his moment of epiphany.
With a loose itinerary, Cliff points his Taurus west and angles toward Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and points further west. His adventures begin almost immediately, when he rediscovers Marybelle, a former student and off brand peach.
In Minnesota, Cliff picks up the married Marybelle, and continues. Her insatiable appetites feed his libido, but her incessant ramblings hurt his psyche.
Both Vivian and Marybelle are right on the money for a certain kind of woman, the author says knowingly.
With Marybelle in tow, Cliff heads further west, into Montana for some trout fishing, then to California to visit his movie producer son Robert. Flush from his film projects, Robert attempts to reconcile Cliff to his new position. From Roberts comfortable but spare San Francisco condo, Cliff next heads back to Montana to fish and meet his Michigan veterinarian buddy Ad.
Eventually free of Marybelle and buoyed by newfound purpose in his renaming project, Cliff understands how, Ten years of teaching and twenty five years of farming had beaten my youthful idealism senseless, but now I had begun to feel it burble up again.
Think of the idealism we inhabit as English majors, Harrison says. When we meet the world and the culture we have now, Emerson isnt the answer. There ought to be a product warning label on books.
For Harrison, the book is about the horror of answered prayers.
Cliff, buffeted by doubt and bolstered by doing, winds his way back to Michigan and to his grandfathers farm, coming as close as he can come to his old cherry orchards and his old life.
Dividing his time between Montana and Arizona, Harrison has been slowed by Type 2 diabetes, and though he admits his behavioral problems are (still) smoking and drinking, he has taken his doctors advice against a book tour to promote The English Major.
His health will not however keep him from more writing. Harrison recently completed the best novella Ive ever written, and there are plans for more nonfiction as well, including Pilgrimages, detailing some 35 writers who have influenced him over the years, including everyone from Willa Cather to Henry James as well French novelists like Camus.
For 15 years Ive been making it as a novelist, he says of his success. I see no reason to stop.