The English Major
by Jim Harrison
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
From Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield, American literature has
thrived on heroes who take quasi-aimless journeys that turn into trips of
self-discovery. Sometimes the travels are made in “fear and loathing”; at
other instances, they are pursued with beatific
beatnik hope for transcendence. But almost
always, the wanderers are young, and their
trips serve as a rite of passage to a more
mature state of being.
In Jim Harrison's novel The English Major, the
man on the road is sixty years old. That gives
Cliff, our protagonist, two years on John
Steinbeck when that novelist embarked on
his Travels with Charley, and more than two
decades of seniority over Humbert Humbert
when the latter set off on the road with the
maiden-child of his dreams. Cliff has no hopes
of getting to some higher level of maturity on
his trip; rather he would settle for one more
taste of the youthful idealism he had once enjoyed as an English major
back at Michigan State.
As is almost de rigeur in these road novels, a mostly arbitrary itinerary
drives the plot forward. In Cliff’s case, he brings along a jigsaw puzzle of
the United States, with separate pieces for each state. The puzzle was
much beloved by his brother Teddy, a Down syndrome child who
drowned as a youngster. Our protagonist aims to visit each of the
states—or at least the 48 contiguous states, since Cliff is afraid of flying.
He will throw away the respective puzzle piece as he leaves each state.
Yes, I think "arbitrary" is the kindest descriptor for our hero's plan of
He has much to flee back in Michigan. His marriage broke up after his
wife Vivian used the occasion of their 40th high school reunion to have a
fling with an old classmate. She disappeared with Fred in his Italian
sports car, and showed up an hour later with grass stains on her knees.
But Cliff seems even more heartbroken over the death of his dog Lola,
and the sale of the family farm where he has labored and enjoyed a
simple rural lifestyle for many years.
One of his first stops is in Morris, Minnesota, where he meets with
Marybelle, a former student from a period when Cliff worked as a high
school teacher. He soon finds himself in a strenuous love affair with the
younger woman, who tests his stamina and perhaps even more his
patience. Further stops on his trip are organized around visits to an old
friend who lives with the snakes in the Arizona desert, and Cliff’s son
Robert, a gay movie mogul on the West Coast.
Cliff finds that Marybelle, Robert and even his ex-wife Vivian want to
micromanage his new retirement life. But he ignores and evades them at
every turn, and instead focuses his attention on a crazy scheme to come
up with new names for each of the fifty states and many of the birds of
America. He likens himself to Joyce and Thoreau as he imagines devoting
his waning creative energies to this task.
Only a top flight writer could pull this thin plot together into a successful
novel. Harrison makes it happen—mostly through the engaging
personality of his narrative voice and his eye for details, inner and outer.
The women in Cliff’s life are perfectly drawn, bright and believable with
just the right dose of caricature. His alcoholic doctor friend, called “A.D.”
for short in the book, is also a strong presence despite the relatively
modest role he plays in the plot. Not every actor on this stage is fully
fleshed out, but even the ones who fall short have their moments and
leave the reader wanting more. Cliff’s “desert rat” friend Bert and his
son Robert have the makings of great characters, but hit the ground a
few yards short of a first down. I suspect that, with just a few more
pages, Harrison could have made them into compelling figures.
Even though he is a senior citizen—or “geezer” as he sometimes
admits—Cliff does manage to “find himself” on this haphazard journey
across the heartland. All the things he thought he was leaving behind,
come back to him, albeit in a much different form than what they once
were. Perhaps most surprising, this one-time English major discovers
that his love of the creative life of the mind—which he thought he had
lost decades before—has been waiting all along for the right spark to
send it into high gear.
I have a hunch that more than a few readers will feel a similar spark in
reading this novel. Jim Harrison has made his mark with over 25 books,
and his stories have been turned into movies (Revenge and Legends of
the Fall). But The English Major is a strong contribution to his oeuvre, and
also a good introduction to this first rate writer who deftly updates
classic Americana themes for the new millennium.
Great Books Guide