Jim Harrison’s memoir is called “Off to the Side” because he had one eye damaged by one of those vicious little girls no one ever is careful enough about. It’s surprising how many people I know with similar eye damage, though Richard Stern’s eye was congenitally wandering, I think, and one woman I know was simply born with one eye. (She wears a glass eye which some friends and I always mistook for the real one because it looked so alert.)
But Harrison takes his eye, which caused him real grief, a little self-pity and a good deal of sympathy from others, as a kind of motif to which he returns and the dust jacket plays off the idea with a photo of him leaning one way while the title is on the other edge and the phrase “A Memoir” is written small back on the other side. He looks big, tough, irascible and hardly pitiable, but it took him a long time to get there.
On the back is the interior man, who matches some of this writing a little better: dark, intent and under a cross. He looks as though he might be a little mad, and according to himself, that’s not far off -- though he, unlike some of his friends (Brautigan, for instance) is auto-salvific. He saves himself. How? By getting into the thickets, not symbolic ones but real thickets with his real dog, where he can step out of himself and reflect honestly on it all.
Of course, it helped to write screenplays in Hollywood for huge amounts of money, though he was poor enough in his early years. When it came to marriage, he was also auto-salvific, able to recover from disagreements and real conflicts, even if it meant going away to look for a thicket for a while. And he was lucky in friendship, attracting and holding big vital male writers like himself. (If one can say that about Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as well as Peter Matthiessen, Tom McGuane, Hayden Carruth and other people who could talk him up, make connections, get grants, and keep him in the tribe. At one point Jack Nicholson wrote him a check sufficient to replace a year’s income so he could really write what he wanted to write.) His family was strong.
One of his main gifts seems to be establishing and preserving relationships with women: his aunts, his daughters, his friends -- he doesn’t take advantage of them but he takes heed of what they say. And he doesn’t double-cross them, at least not on purpose. So he has earned the right to depend upon them.
Fishing and hunting helped. And so did his cooking, though I think I’d bow out on a dinner invitation since his recipes mostly lean to strange parts of anatomy simmered in the hottest condiments available and swilled down with strong alcohol of great expense. I’ll stick to my boring low-glycemic life-saving abstemiousness.
Still, a man who can roar and rant and dredge up wild scenes like those in “Legends of the Fall” can’t be all bad. At least he’s not bland. And occasionally he will say something about himself that is so personal and -- well, recognizable even to a child -- that it’s disarming to say nothing of endearing. For instance, he claims to be hopeless about drying off after a bath. He begins all right, but forgets what he’d doing, sits down on the bed and begins to read or fiddle with some object until he just air-dries or puts on clothes while still wet. One of his friends explained to him carefully the proper order and technique of drying off, but for Harrison it just doesn’t register. I have the same problem -- had to post a little list for my morning routine or I forget something.
This is what comes of having an inner life so intense and complex that it’s often more interesting than “real” life, which means that sometimes one’s “real” life is in danger if there aren’t people willing to look out for one, or if one isn’t in a situation that is safely structured for wanderminded writers. It’s just extra important to pay attention when driving.
The thing of it is, if one is driven to write, in the beginning there’s no assurance at all that one will be able to do it. It’s a thing that has to be done for a while before you can really do it -- like horse-back riding or -- I suppose -- fishing. At first it’s a matter of reading, then a matter of living, and finally something mysterious -- an inner leap of some sort to a world-view worth sharing and language skills up to the task.
On the cover is this rather windy blurb from Hayden Carruth: “No one has advanced and expanded the American literary ethos in the latter part of the twentieth century more cogently, usefully, and just plain brilliantly than Jim Harrison... This is a matter to which all literate Americans should pay serious attention.” (I don't really know what that means.)
Carruth and Harrison are not men who live in this world easily, or so I gather -- not knowing them personally. Harrison has worried about what he can “see” in the deep sense as well as physically, an attempt to see things from both sides, to see deeply and honestly. But on the other hand he recognizes the necessity of fitting into the commercial world. One can almost hear his agent or editor urging him to drop some names and tell more sensational stories. Like seeing naked women in strip clubs or even by accident. He defends outrageousness in reasonable tones, which is undoubtedly why Jack Nicholson likes him.
“Off to the Side” is not going to tell you how to write, find an agent, or get on the best-seller list. It’s not even going to tell you how to be outrageous and get away with it. But it will tell you what it cost one man to write as well as he could, never really knowing whether it was good enough.
Let that be a warning to you. I don’t know whether there’s a lesson in it.
"Off to the Side" by Jim Harrison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002. ISBN 0-87113-860-3