Legends Of The Fall author was larger than life

Jim Harrison.
Jim Harrison.

NEW YORK • Jim Harrison, whose lust for life - and sometimes just plain lust - roared into print in a vast, celebrated body of fiction, poetry and essays that explored the natural world, the life of the mind and the pleasures of the flesh, died last Saturday at his home in Patagonia, Arizona. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by his publisher, Grove Atlantic, which said the cause had not been determined.

A native of Michigan, Harrison lived most recently during the summers in the wild countryside near Livingston, Montana, where he enthusiastically shot the rattlesnakes that colonised his yard, and during the winters in Patagonia, where he enthusiastically shot all kinds of things.

In both places, far from the self- regarding literary soirees of New York, for which he had little but contempt, and the lucre of Hollywood, where he had done time as a dazzlingly dissolute screenwriter, he could engage in the essential, monosyllabic pursuits that defined the borders of his life: to walk, drive, hunt, fish, cook, drink, smoke, write.

The result was prodigious: 21 volumes of fiction, including Legends Of The Fall (1979), a collection of three novellas whose title piece, about a Montana family ravaged by World War I, became a 1994 film starring Brad Pitt; 14 books of poetry; two books of essays; a memoir, and a children's book.

His most recent book of fiction, The Ancient Minstrel, was published this month. A book of poetry, Dead Man's Float, was published this year.

In Harrison's fiction, especially, lay some of the most vivid, violent and evocative writing of its day - work that in the estimation of many critics captured the resonant, almost mythic soul of 20th-century rural America.

Considered a master of the novella, a rarely cultivated discipline, Harrison was also known for his essays on food. He was perhaps the leading exponent of the small subgenre, in which shotguns and shoe leather play a far greater role than balsamic reduction.

His food writing, much of which first appeared in Esquire, was collected in his 2001 book, The Raw And The Cooked, whose title invokes anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss' volume of that name. Levi-Strauss' book is about myth and ritual. Harrison's is about rituals that include his flying to France for the sole purpose of having lunch - a lunch that spanned 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 wines.

Because of his books' hyper- masculine subject matter, Harrison was chronically, and to his unrelieved disgust, compared with one man.

In fact, his prose is nothing like Ernest Hemingway's: It is jazzier, more lyrical and more darkly comic.

At bottom, Harrison was not so much like Hemingway as he was like something out of Hemingway.

There was the eating. Harrison once faced down 144 oysters, just to see if he could finish them. (He could.) There was the drinking. One fine summer, he personally tested 38 varieties of Cotes du Rhone. ("It was like a small wine festival. Just me, really," he told The Washington Post afterwards.) There was the drugging, in his Hollywood period, when he wrote the screenplays for films including Revenge (1990), starring Kevin Costner and based on Harrison's novella of that name.

There was the hobnobbing with his spate of famous friends, including Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett.

"If you've known a lot of actresses and models," he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, "you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food."

Harrison was born on Dec 11, 1937, in Grayling, in northern Michigan.

When he was in his early 20s, his father and his 19-year-old sister were killed on a hunting trip, when their car was struck by a drunken driver.

The writer had also been invited, but had vacillated before choosing not to go. The decision probably saved his life. But in delaying the start of the trip, which put his father and sister on the road at precisely the wrong moment, he felt he had caused their deaths.

He earned a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Michigan State University, where his classmates included the future novelist Thomas McGuane, followed by a master's in the field there.

In the mid-1960s, he taught briefly at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before turning his back on academia for the writing life.

His wife, the former Linda King, whom he married in 1960, died in October. He is survived by two daughters, a sister, a brother and three grandchildren.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Legends Of The Fall author was larger than life'. Print Edition | Subscribe