Review of Jim Harrison, The English Major
I was an English Major. Maybe I'll pick up this book. I'll probably like it, right?
This is my stupid internal monologue. I'm going to start with a couple of reviewer-ly cliches. I picked up this book because I thought I would like it. I didn't like it because I can't relate to old men having late life crises after a divorce.
Okay, so now that I'm finished with that mini-rant, here is a much more substantial and thoughtful review, I promise.
The English Major begins: "It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn't." I was compelled by this first sentence, and the subtlety of the representation of the end of the main character's life as he knows it. Now that it "isn't" Cliff and Vivian, Cliff has decided to take a road trip across all fifty states. Cliff is a former English/history teacher, turned farmer. His wife cheats on him at their high school reunion, and since she is a realtor and the primary breadwinner in the house, he is left only with some cash from the sale of the farm, and his retirement from his years of teaching. He heads out with nothing much more than a United States puzzle with different colored states, which he throws out one by one as he travels through the state each piece represents. This puzzle and his ritualistic recitation of the bird, motto, nickname and flower of each state become the most common tropes in the book. Cliff picks up a former student, with whom he begins an affair, and visits his son in San Francisco, but other than that, there isn't much plot to the book. The narrative is Cliff's internal struggle with his identity in the wake of the dissolution of the marriage that defined him and with his aging self.
This is a remarkably masculine book. Now, I don't tend to gender stereotype books I read a lot of what some might call masculine fiction, but for me, there was no way into this book as a female. Cliff is part curmudgeon, part drunk, part Luddite, and part horny teenage boy. He uses words to refer to his anatomy that made me kind of uncomfortable, and does so frequently. Harrison is probably most well known for writing Legends of the Fall, which is clearly a masculine story, but I think that it tells us a bit more about humanity than this does. I had heard that Harrison can't write female characters (except perhaps in his novella Woman Lit by Fireflies, which I have not read), and I saw no evidence to dispute that here. Marybelle, Cliff's former student/lover, is totally crazy and wants to have sex all the time. As a reader, I found her irritating, but wanted her to be part of the narrative, because the book is better when Cliff is having sex. I think that this is exactly how Cliff felt about her. Cliff's only positive relationship with a female (or maybe anyone) in the book is with his dog, Lola.
Cliff eventually becomes obsessed with a project to rename all of the states. This is where his background in English/history comes into play. He wants to give them names to represent the original native inhabitants. This was slightly interesting to me, as it seems that Cliff is engaged in an act of reclaiming something that he lost in his divorce, and is also creating something (much like he was creating something when he was farming). Naming is also a God-like act, and Cliff's attempts to control his project are like the attempts to control his life that has spiraled out of his control in the months of drunkenness following his divorce.
Overall, I didn't hate reading this book. There were a few laughs and moments where the land becomes the main character, that I appreciated as a reader. What I really wanted from the book was a different Cliff. I wanted to see him change more in the book. I wanted to understand him better. And in that respect, I was disappointed.