Monday, December 12, 2011

Animals were so clearly just themselves - wandering in the woods with Jim Harrison's Farmer

Kevin, at Interpolations, suggested folks read Jim Harrison’s Farmer (1976), so I did.  I’d never read him before.  The short novel makes a nice companion piece to Jean Thompson’s Iowa novel The Year We Left Home – Harrison’s Michigan novel could be re-titled The Year I Stayed Home.  Actually, in the first chapter, we see that our hero Joseph has, in fact, left home, or at least gone on vacation for the first time in his life, so never mind.  The Year I Left Home works for this novel, too.  Joseph just has to work out a few minor issues before he can leave home.  Death, love, vocation, that sort of thing.

Joseph spends a lot of time wandering in the woods, hunting and fishing and looking around.  I would have been happy if the novel had been nothing but, like a book-length version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Fisted River.”  Just one of these after another:

One afternoon he had been lucky enough to see a Cooper’s hawk swoop down through the trees and kill a blue-winged teal.  The other ducks escaped in a wild flock circling the pond twice while the Cooper’s hawk stood shrouding its prey with its wings.  Joseph watched it feed on the teal’s breast then fly off to a large dead oak to preen.  It was far too spectacular to be disturbing.  (15)

A water snake swam passed the boat; the doctor poked at it with the tip of his flyrod and the startled snake turned and hissed.  Then it continued on its way, leaving an S-shaped miniature wake in the water.  (102)

Man in nature – the “man” part is what makes it literature.  Harrison’s novel is about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ennobled lemurs,” a more humanistic investigation of human animalism than Zola’s Thérèse Raquin:

Animals were so clearly just themselves, much more so than humans.  He liked the idea that man was the only mammal that thought of himself as part of a species.  (42)

The best ideas in the novel are about Joseph, or Harrison, investigating the relationship between his animal self and his “ennobled” self, how a sexual affair with a student* relates to his love of Keats and Whitman, or why he will hunt grouse (“splendid dinners wandering around in the forest waiting to be gathered and eaten”) but not woodcock or deer.  What strange animals we are.

I guess Hemingway never wrote a story called “The Big Two-Fisted River,” but he should have.  Someone should.  I am thinking of the one he did write, with the similar name.  “Hearted,” not “Fisted.”

*  Poking around, I have of course come across comparisons of Farmer with Lolita, reminding me of how utterly, shamefully ignorant many people are about Nabokov’s novel.


  1. I read Legends of the Fall a couple of years ago and loved. I also loved "Big Two-Hearted River." I should look this one up, too. For some reason I had the impression that Jim Harrison only wrote the one novel. Have you read A River Runs Through It? You've got me thinking about fishing novels/stories now.

  2. The rural Michigan characters in Farmer go fishing in the U.P., so the link to Hemingway is not exactly hidden, even aside from the stylistic debt.

    No, I have never read A River Runs Through It, but I am not surprised that it belongs in the same category. Or maybe you just mean that it is about fishing. Don't omit The Compleat Angler!

  3. I read an interview with Norman Maclean from a few years before his death (1990), when Robert Redford was trying to buy rights to film A River Runs Through It. Maclean was hesitant because, as he said, "Redford doesn't know anything about fishing."

    The bits you quote from Farmer are gorgeous. Have you read Paul Harding's book, Tinkers? It won a Puliter Prize and all that. It's short, modernist and has some lovely sections. Possibly it doesn't really add up in the end, but there are spellbinding passages.

    ~scott gf bailey

  4. Another good fishing book is Ota Pavel's How I Came To Love Fish. I stumbled across it in a used bookstore a few years ago, and it's enchanting.


  5. I was going to say that I had never heard of the books you recommend, but I just realized that the Harding novel is that surprise Pulitzer winner from a year or two ago. So I have heard of it.

    Regardless, thanks for the recommendations.

  6. Tom, thank you, I really enjoyed your bit and am glad you enjoyed the book - "Far too spectacular to be disturbing." Good stuff.

  7. "My bit" is right - I finally had a place to let go of my "Big Two-Fisted River" joke.

    But, yes, I did enjoy the book a lot, and will try Legends of the Fall sometime.

  8. Yes, "two-fisted" sounds like a parody version of a Hemingway work that deserves no parody.

  9. World war vet and private eye Nick Adams was just looking for a little R&R and some fresh pan-fried trout, but what he got was - murder!

    Can Nick punch and fish his way out of danger again? Don't miss his latest action-packed adventure: The Big Two-Fisted River!

  10. What an interesting book that sounds. I'd like to give it a go - nice and short too.

  11. Short, yes - one of my favorite qualities in a book.