A few words on the Montana of Jim Harrison


Andy Anderson

Jim Harrison rather liked his American Spirit cigarettes.

In an AP story about the death of Jim Harrison that ran in the Billings Gazette this morning, there is no mention of Livingston, though the headline does say, “‘Legends of the Fall'” author Jim Harrison, formerly of Livingston, dies at 78.'”

I might be wrong, but I don’t think he was a “former” resident of Livingston. I believe he had residences in Michigan, Arizona and the Paradise Valley, and that for the past 14 years he spent much of his time near Livingston.

To give proper weight, then, to the influence of Montana on one of the great writers of our age, you could start with this Wall Street Journal article from 2009, which goes into considerable detail about Harrison’s house and its setting in the Paradise Valley. It includes this priceless paragraph:

“Sun drenches the big open kitchen, where Mr. Harrison and guests occasionally cook elaborate, multi-course meals—many featuring birds and game he’s hunted himself. Earlier this summer, Anthony Bourdain, chef and host of the Travel Channel’s food show ‘No Reservations,’ visited Mr. Harrison’s home during a trip to Livingston. Mr. Harrison cooked an elk and antelope stew and grilled about two dozen doves, washed down with several bottles of Côtes du Rhône. ‘Basically, I want to be Jim when I grow up,’ Mr. Bourdain said in an email.”

And here, from just last June, is a fine essay by a young writer who made the pilgrimage to the Paradise Valley and was rewarded with a visit to the master himself. Here’s the writer’s description of Livingston:

“In this part of Montana, you meet people who don’t fit into the categories you bring from New York—conservationist hunters, liberals opposed to big government, manual laborers who can quote The Gulag Archipelago. Harrison’s fiction is full of men who know who Modigliani is but also how to cut someone’s throat; now I understood where he got them.”

I confessed in my review of “Brown Dog” that I hadn’t read much of Harrison, but I have read enough to venture to say that he must have been among the handful of the best novelists in the United States. And purists say his poetry was even better, that novel-writing just paid the bills.

I’ll leave you with one more piece about Harrison, though it does not mention Livingston, either. It is a review of Harrison’s “The Great Leader,” written by the novelist Pete Dexter for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Dexter—whom I would place in that same handful with Harrison—says this was the only the second “book report” he’d ever written: “In the spring of 1956 I wrote a highly favorable review of the Bible without reading a word of it, and it was the last A I ever got in English.”

Dexter writes about the “miraculous stuff” in Harrison’s work, and says that “you can still feel the excitement every time he pulls something new out of his ear.” That was the key to Harrison. You really did get the feeling that his most brilliant passages—the keen observations and bits of offhand wisdom that abound in his novels—simply came to him fully formed in the act of writing. And you do feel the excitement he must have felt when they came to him.

If it weren’t for Dexter’s review I might never have gotten around to cracking Harrison. As it turned out, I didn’t even thoroughly enjoy “The Great Leader,” but I was so intrigued by the miraculous stuff that I went on to read four or five more of his novels, and now look forward to many more.

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