Farmer by Jim Harrison

I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.

These words come from Frost, of course. After Apple-Picking is a favorite poem of mine. One summer as I languished at my girlfriend’s parent’s house—a grim unfortunate affair where I wallowed in my own muck—I spent the morning reading Moby Dick and the afternoon memorizing lines of Frost. I moved among the oaks and chaparral distractedly; I petted the wet nose of a cow; and a single line insinuated itself into my mind forever.

I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.

There they are again, those wonderful words. I’m tempted to greet them as if to say, Why hello, you surprised me again after all these years. An unexpected bloom from a seed planted long ago. Thank goodness for the fecundity of even blighted soil.

I’m not overtired of life like Frost’s apple farmer. But I am overtired of reading and thinking, and writing about my reading and thinking. In particular I’m tired of plots. They bore me to tears.

After my bit on Embers, I vowed never to write about them again. Ever.

So imagine my huff when, after tweeting, “A suspicion dawns—J. Harrison is an underappreciated stylist. Proof: Farmer,” Amateur Reader tidily responds, “Write up Farmer for me. It’s short. I’ll read it.” Harrumph.

Adventures in the profane

I really enjoyed Farmer a lot and think it’s a brilliant stylistic gem; I respect and admire Tom a lot, too. But I absolutely refuse to utter one bloody word about plot except to say that our 43-year old protagonist who is a farmer and a teacher crushes his childhood sweetheart’s dreams by conducting an intense sexual affair with his 17-year old student. He hungers for adventures in the profane. What else do you need to know? Not you, Tom, but you, generic you?

One of the best aspects of Farmer is the writing. It’s filled with wonderful descriptions of farm life, of hunting and fishing, and of the constant roiling reality of sex. Harrison delivers sharply drawn images and surprising insights, from “long circular howls” (i.e., of a coyote not a 17-year old student, mind) to the Proustian remark that “Sickness often creates a space to live in, freeing the mind from the habitual if only for a day or two.”

I appreciate the utter lack of moralism in the novel, too. Love and duty, sex and passion, and of course infidelity—we are nominally monogamous animals after all—are facts of nature. These things happen as a matter of course like a hard frost that flattens fields and orchards. There’s little or no use in complaining about the ways of the world. About the farmer’s selfish and hurtful actions, a neighbor says, “It was a bad thing to do and our lives are filled with bad things.”

Intersection of books and life

But the best thing about Farmer by far is the odd synchronicity that happened last Saturday while I was reading the book on the front stoop of my house in the warm sun. Here’s the passage; the “him” is our farmer-protagonist.

An idea that fixed him to one spot was that life was a death dance…. The ocean creatures he read of illustrated the point so bleakly. To devour or be devoured. But their sure instincts kept them alive as long as possible, as did those of the wild ducks before him, or even the geese. Even the brown trout, the simplest of the trout family, were mindful of the waterbirds, the king fisher and the heron….

Just then a red-tailed hawk dropped from an elm on a squirrel on the street front. Something happened because the squirrel was firmly clutched in the hawk’s talons and then suddenly was free scampering to the other side of the street, its tiny claws clicking frantically on the asphalt. The squirrel hid under a truck dead center and flattened itself to the ground and would cower there for an hour. Miffed, the hawk took flight and several crows a block away gave chase and harassed their quarry in a deafening chatter.

Sure instincts make geometers and do-gooders of us all.

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7 Responses to Farmer by Jim Harrison

  1. Sav says:

    I love the print you included in your “Farmer by Jim Harrison” post. I can’t make out the author. Please – who is it?

    • I can’t tell either. Looks like Svel Cotton or maybe Siel Cotton or even Sel Cotton, but none of these terms turn up hits on Bing or Google. Likely terms I used to find it in the first place are “rural scene,” “farm in michigan,” and “farm scene,” but again no luck, I’m embarrassed to say. Glad you like the painting. I reacted to it, too, when I first saw it. Pleased to have you finally drop by. Cheers, Kevin

  2. nicole says:

    Love and duty, sex and passion, and of course infidelity—we are nominally monogamous animals after all—are facts of nature. These things happen as a matter of course like a hard frost that flattens fields and orchards. There’s little or no use in complaining about the ways of the world. About the farmer’s selfish and hurtful actions, a neighbor says, “It was a bad thing to do and our lives are filled with bad things.”

    Ahh, the Jim Harrison I know and love. I continue to predict you will like Legends of the Fall—and I make it 50/50 that you like it even more than this one.

    • It’s slightly obscene just how much I’m enjoying Harrison. I’m on to True North right now and am struck by his versatility. I’ve now read three books of his and each is so different, in terms of style, voice and treatment.

  3. Plot? You think by “write up” I meant plot? I could not care less.

    Style, meaning, purpose, tradition, that’s the good stuff.

    I’m on page 20. “Grouse were splendid dinners wandering around in the forest waiting to be gathered and eaten.” Yum! That’s p. 19, actually.

    • I know, I know…

      Although you may not equate plot with write up, I tend to do so. I’m still learning how to talk about books without talking about the aboutness of books or the plottiness of books.

      I remember the grouse sentence, too.

      And the cowhide rug.

      Eager to read your thoughts on the book. Cheers, K

  4. […] Farmer by Jim Harrison, a slim novel filled with beautiful descriptions of rural life. A cowhide rug is to Farmer what liver is to Portnoy’s Complaint. Except only a wee bit different. […]

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