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The English Majorby Jim Harrison
You don't have to be young to start over, hip to seize life, or daring to have adventure. You don't need to be moneyed (or utterly destitute) to meet the right people. A simple life is fuel enough for insight and meaning, and change is often good. Jim Harrison's writing is marvelous, and in his new novel — On the Road for the common man — he takes the reader on a trip with a teacher-turned-farmer who hits the highways after personal catastrophe.
Synopses & Reviews
"It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn't."
With these words, Jim Harrison sends his sixty-something protagonist, divorced and robbed of his farm by a late-blooming real estate shark of an ex-wife, on a road trip across America, armed with a childhood puzzle of the United States and a mission to rename all the states and state birds to overcome the banal names men have given them. Cliff's adventures take him through a whirlwind affair with a former student from his high school teaching days some twenty years earlier; to a "snake farm" in Arizona owned by an old classmate; and to the high-octane existence of his son, a big-time movie producer in San Francisco.
"In Harrison's funny, spirited latest, Cliff, a 60-year-old former Michigan high school teacher, bids adieu to his inherited family farm (lost in a shady real estate deal); his wife, Vivian, of 38 years (who has been cheating on him and orchestrated the deal) and dear departed dog Lola (the 'truest woman in my life'); and sets off on a yearlong, countrywide jag. Armed with his childhood jigsaw puzzle mapping the 50 states, Cliff endearingly tosses out a puzzle piece every time he crosses state lines, reminisces and tries (with as much humor as he can muster) to make the best of his shattered existence. The miles between Minnesota and Montana play host to a melodramatically drawn-out love/hate 'romantic triumph' with Marybelle, a married former student. She stalks Cliff well into a visit with his affluent gay son, Robert, flourishing in San Francisco. As more calamity ensues in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana, the possibility of reconciliation with Vivian looms. With a plot left deliberately thin, Harrison is consistently witty and engaging as he drives home his timeless theme: that change can be beneficial at any point in life." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
At the end of a class reunion that he didn't want to attend, poor Cliff notices that his wife has returned to the party with grass stains on her clothes. She soon deserts him to run off with an old high-school flame and, in the bargain, pockets most of the profits from the sale of the Michigan farm where Cliff has raised cattle and tended orchards for the past 25 years. Oh, and his dog just died.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) With a dim future ahead, the 60-year-old protagonist of Jim Harrison's latest novel hits the open road like a superannuated Jack Kerouac in search of adventure and self-understanding. He's also propelled by his absurd "sacred project" of assigning new names to birds and to the 50 states. In his long-ago past, Cliff was an English major at Michigan State and spent 10 years as a high-school teacher. Somewhere in Minnesota, he hooks up with a libidinous former student named Marybelle — a married woman 17 years his junior — and the two embark on a graphically described cross-country sex romp. "There's something about Nebraska that has me sexually wired," says the insatiable Marybelle. (As a native Nebraskan, I have to confess I've never had quite that response toward my home state.) By the time they get to Montana, Cliff has grown tired of Marybelle's drama and, more to the point, her constant cell phone chatter. "Forty-five years of sex fantasies come true," he says before dropping her off, "and I'm thinking that I wish I could go fishing." He continues his tour of Western states, developing a crush on a new waitress in every town. Between his minutely detailed meals — lots of meat, lots of booze — Cliff muses on reuniting with his wife and wonders if he's wasted his time and his mind by working on the farm. This much is certain: Harrison has saddled Cliff — English major or not — with some atrocious prose. He writes with all the grace of a car that has blown its tires and is running on the rims. Some passages are laughably awkward on many levels: "At dinner my ears had reddened watching a pretty Mexican waitress float across the room with her trays of food. There was Mexican music on the jukebox and I felt like I was in a foreign land, Mexico to be exact." In one of the more ludicrous scenes, Cliff meets a 21-year-old waitress who agrees to take off her clothes for $300, if he'll keep a distance of at least 10 feet. "You might be a farmer," she says, "but I bet big money you were an English major in college." Yeah, sure. Somehow, I doubt if Harrison's aimless road trip will have many students rushing over to the English department. Matt Schudel is a Washington Post staff writer. Reviewed by Matt Schudel, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Harrison's sixty-something protagonist — divorced and robbed of his farm by a late-blooming real-estate shark of an ex-wife — embarks on a road trip across America, in this story that is the map of a man's journey into, and out of, himself.
It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isnt.” With these words, Jim Harrison begins a riotous, moving novel that sends a sixty-something man, divorced and robbed of his farm by a late-blooming real estate shark of an ex-wife, on a road trip across America. Cliff is armed with a childhood puzzle of the United States and a mission to rename all the states and state birds, the latter of which have been unjustly saddled with white mens banal monikers up until now. His adventures take him through a whirlwind affair with a former student from his high-school-teacher days twenty-some years before, to a snake farm” in Arizona owned by an old classmate, and to the high-octane existence of his son, a big-time movie producer who has just bought an apartment over the Presidio in San Francisco. Now in paperback, Jim Harrisons riotous and moving cross-country novel, The English Major, is the map of a mans journey into, and out of, himself. It is vintage Harrison—reflective, big-picture American, and replete with wicked wit.
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