Happy birthday, Jim

By Bill Castanier

Michigan native Jim Harrison and friends on the author’s ability to produce after all these years

He was making a list and checking it twice, stuffing everything into his Airstream for the big trip.

Santa Claus? No. Just Guy de la Valdene — author, photographer, fisherman and French count — packing for his annual visit to fellow author, fishing companion and long-time friend Jim Harrison.

On this trip, Valdene will be carrying a special package of head cheese recently arrived from New York from fellow Harrison pal and celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Head cheese is one of Harrison’s personal delights.

In one of his often absurd and over-the-top columns in Esquire in the ‘80s, Harrison touted the qualities and taste of head cheese. The recipe begins “one pig’s head — boil for 24 hours.”

For Harrison — raised for a time in Haslett and educated at Michigan State University — a New York headcheese fetish belies a prolific and quite successful body of work that reflects Michigan roots, particularly the often untamed Upper Peninsula.

“I have a staggering amount of food stuffed into my Airstream,” Valdene said, much of it fish and fowl.

They will wash it down with a couple of cases of fine wine he has packed, enough, he figures, for two or three nights.

Valdene is making the three-day trip from Tallahassee, Fla., to join Harrison and several other friends for Harrison’s 76th birthday celebration today in Patagonia, Ariz. He talked with glee of being able to score a package of Batali’s homemade head cheese.

“It’s mouth watering,” Valdene said. Valdene sees Harrison’s Esquire columns as one example of the author’s tremendous breadth of literary styles.

Harrison has written across a notable number of genres and styles, ranging from magazines to poetry (13 volumes) to novels (19 books) to non-fiction books (three) to a children’s book and screenplays. “Brown Dog,” his second release this year, is a collection of five previous novellas and one new one that features Brown Dog, an Upper Peninsula outsider and his comic but often tender romantic adventures. He has another due out next year. Most recently, the Sunday New York Times Travel section carried Harrison’s musings on his life and travels in the Upper Peninsula. His loving descriptions are those of a “Pure Michigan” campaign.

Harrison celebrates his 76th birthday today and is closing in on 50 years of a critically acclaimed writing career. When other writers are closing out their careers, Harrison seems to be ramping his up. He’s planning a spring trip to France where they adore his work. Harrison recently took time from his writing for a rare interview with City Pulse — surely he’d rather be hunting or fishing.

“I’m going to write six to eight hours today, depending if I decide to go hunting for quail and dove. I pluck the doves and cook them over a wood fire. They are easy to pluck,” he said from Arizona.

Writing is part of Harrison’s being. “It’s my life. I was once asked what I would do if I couldn’t write. Nothing,” he said.

“My dad said if you are good with a shovel, you’ll never be out of work. Well I’m good with a pencil,” Harrison said.

In the thicket Thrown into the limelight with his books and especially his screenplays like “Legends of the Fall” (based on one of his books), Harrison has always retreated to his small-town roots. After college at MSU and a sojourn to New York to teach, he returned to the Leelanau Peninsula with his spouse, Linda, to raise a family, often seeking further refuge in his cabin in Grand Marais. After cashing out in Michigan, he splits his time between Patagonia and Livingston, Mont.

Born in Grayling and raised in Reed City and Haslett (when it was still rural), Harrison has always sought the quiet of a back road or a hidden garden. He’ll tell you bluntly that his favorite time spent at MSU was in the Beal Gardens.

Another of his best friends, Robert DeMott, a retired Ohio University professor who has regularly hunted and fished with Harrison since meeting him at a Key West writing conference in 1996, says the author likes to describe himself as “in a little thicket” where “nobody could see him, but he could see out.”

DeMott, who has edited the book “Conversations with Jim Harrison,” said he came to think of Harrison as an older brother and emphasizes that the author thinks deeply about things.

“He’s part of the long and hallowed tradition of Walden, Thoreau and American Transcendentalism.

“He sees culture and nature merging together.

He’s not asking readers to choose one or another,” DeMott said.

And when it comes to comparing Harrison’s works to other great writers, “Moby Dick” comes to mind for DeMott.

“Jim has the ability to find what’s good and worthy about what most of us don’t pay any attention to,” he said.

Harrison, by any measure, is not slowing down. De- Mott attributes at least part of that to Harrison “stripping away everything but necessities.”

“He doesn’t have to do anything but think and write,” DeMott said.

Valdene takes it further: “He’s addicted to writing. “I know there’s a word for it, but I can’t remember it. … If he’s away from it for three or four days he’s not happy.”

Still producing This year is no different for Harrison. Despite recovering from back surgery last fall, he was still able to bookend 2013 with two books. The beginning of the year saw the publication of “The River Swimmer,” containing two novellas. One probes the life of an aging artist who moves back to Michigan and not only rediscovers his love affair with art, but he also rekindles a youthful love affair. The other, borrowing the book’s title, follows a young man’s coming-of-age story and is told in near myth-like, Gabriel-Garcia-Marquez magic realism. Exploring his inner self, the young man sets out to swim the Lake Michigan shoreline from northern Michigan to Chicago. In addition to big waves, he encounters several big romantic diversions.

“I don’t know where those things come from. I just saw a physical image of him swimming. Swimming was one of those things that soothes you,” Harrison said.

He said he was always taken by nature. “When I was a little boy I would sleep in the woods with a blanket. It was the whole bedroll cowboy thing. The danger in my mind was civilization, not the woods.”

Harrison’s second book this year was the eagerly awaited “Brown Dog.”

Brown Dog is an atavistic, primal and often ribald character — an everyman who goes through life with no sense of pretension or a job. The character, first introduced in 1990 when he appeared in the collection, “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” is a metis (Chippewa-Cornish mix) with a big appetite for life. That includes food, his love life, generosity and loyalty.

“Brown Dog embodies that hunger for the physical world and a desire to eat as much as possible without guilt or shame — sex, liquor, food,” DeMott said.

“He may be a bit of my alter ego,” Harrison said, “but mostly he emerged and I was very taken by him.”

Harrison said his Canadian publisher had been imploring him to consider a Brown Dog collection and, when he asked why, he said they told him, “We have more brown dogs up here.”

“I attribute that to pulp cutting, alcohol and fishing,” Harrison said.

‘Brusqueness is underrated’ Although Harrison is seen as gruff, brusque and unapproachable, the exact opposite is the case. There are legions of younger authors out there who he has helped. Traverse City author Doug Stanton is in that fold, along with East Lansing native and author Chris Dombrowski, who now lives in Montana.

Stanton, the founder of the National Writers Series in Traverse City and a New York Times best-selling author, often tells the story of first meeting Harrison and having a life-changing experience.

“He was the first author I met. You don’t meet a lot of authors on Front Street in Traverse. It was an inspiration,” he said.

Later, at his wedding, Harrison gave him and his spouse, Anne (also a writer), a generous wedding gift, but more important, he included a sticky note with the name of his editor at Esquire.

Dombrowski — a poet, river guide, college instructor and one of the select few on “Jim’s list” to receive Harrison’s most recent poems — has taken the author float fishing on several Montana rivers. He looks to him for inspiration, notably Harrison’s “incredible work ethic as well as his chiding.”

He recalls how once Harrison sent him a message about taking the month of January off with the addendum, “But I’m 32 books ahead of you, so get trucking.”

“He’s been an incredible influence as well as being an incredible human being,” Dombrowski said.

Dombrowski admires how Harrison “works with reckless abandon with no seeming sense of completion.”

“His work is risky. It’s got stains of life on it, not overly clean, careful or correct,” he said.

He points to one piece of his early work, “A Good Day to Die,” published in 1973, which dealt with PTSD and ecoterrorism way before the issues were in anyone’s consciousness.

“I see him as a vast river fed by lots and lots of different disciplines,” Dombrowski said. And, he said, “Brusqueness is underrated.”

Stanton agrees that one of the hallmarks of Harrison’s writing is he’s not one-dimensional.

“Like all masters, he is able to be elegant and complex at the same time,” Stanton said. “Most people his age have less to say. He has more and more.”

The New York Times said in a recent review, “His mind always seems to be halftuned to its own pirate Mexican reggae radio station.” A conversation with Harrison can bounce seamlessly from 15th-century Chinese poets to fine wine and head cheese. And it all makes sense.

And more and more of that reggae-style thought is showing up in his collection of papers, which is held at Grand Valley State University. Collection archivist Nancy Richard said it’s a “gold mine.”

Lately, she’s been impressed with correspondence between Harrison and his fans and new writers and the letters between himself and chef Batali.

“You can almost see in his letters that he’ll be working on using a phrase that later appears in his writing,” Richard said. In addition, his correspondence with his administrative assistant Joyce and publishers is illuminating.

“It’s the other half of the story,” Richard said.

Bud Schulz, a videographer at the MSU College of Human Medicine, calls himself a member of Harrison’s “over-the-belt gang.” He can count Harrison as a friend about as long as anyone in the area, first meeting the author in 1962. Of Harrison’s writing, he most admires his poetry.

“He got me connected up to poetry the way no one else could,” Schulz said.

He also likes how Harrison’s writing always includes “someone making decisions — they’re doing something,” he said.

And when it comes to Brown Dog, Schulz said “there is a little bit of Brown Dog in all of Harrison’s books and in Jim and his hunting and angling pals.”

“He is a voracious reader and with an IQ off the charts, he remembers everything he’s ever read. Plus he has an imagination that never stops,” Valdene said.

As proof, Harrison’s next novel is already being edited, and he expects a collection of poetry in 2014.

Harrison said his publisher was upset about his next novel — tentatively titled “Seven Big Ones” and featuring a previous character, retired state police detective Sunderson — “because it’s about evil.

“People in New York are removed from it.”