Friday, February 20, 2009

Road Trip

I don't get much chance to use the word picaresque, and it's a favorite of mine. So I'm pleased to say that Jim Harrison's The English Major is a picaresque novel. I picked this book because it was on the NYT 'Notable 100' list last year and it was an author I hadn't read. I was surprised to learn that Harrison has written more than twenty-five books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, has won a Guggenheim and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Where have I been?

The premise of the story is spelled out simply in the first few pages. The first person narrator Cliff is a sixty year old Michigan cherry farmer whose wife has just divorced him after re-connecting with an old flame at their fortieth high school reunion. He's been compelled to sell the farm as part of the divorce settlement and his beloved dog has died. Ouch. So Cliff does what the classic red-blooded American male does – he goes on a road trip. He even takes along his childhood U.S. map puzzle, so he can toss out a puzzle piece each time he crosses a state line. And true to the genre, the road trip includes a fair amount of drinking, fishing, philosophizing and sex.

Harrison's Cliff is definitely a masculine 'tough-guy' voice, with more discussions of his male member than I really needed. But he is also very funny and often self-deprecating, and his years on the farm have made him a wonderful observer of the flora and fauna he sees on his trip. His encounters with ex-student Marybelle (he taught high school before taking over the farm) and with his son in San Francisco give him plenty of chances for humorous observations on the joys and dangers of sex and the curse of cellphones. His descriptions of good meals and bad coffee on the road are vivid and funny. And the trip does help him determine a way forward in his life. Given a decent reader, I think this would be a great book-on-tape for a long road trip. And it will give you a chance to impress your friends with the word picaresque.

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