Bookmarks Issue: 
Jim Harrison
Award Year: 

A-The English MajorJim Harrison, prolific fiction writer and poet, is best known for his 1979 novella Legends of the Fall. His fiction includes Wolf, A Good Day to Die, Dalva, The Road Home, True North ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004), and Returning to Earth ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007), as well as five collections of novellas. The English Major is his tenth novel.

The Story: When Vivian leaves Cliff, her husband of 38 years, and takes most of the proceeds from the family’s cherry farm, Cliff takes to the road. With an old U.S. geography jigsaw puzzle from his childhood as companion—he throws the corresponding piece of puzzle out the car window each time he crosses a state line—the former high school English teacher sets out from Michigan to rename the states and birds of America. Finding love (or at least sex) along the way in Marybelle, a student from decades before, Cliff reflects on the first 60 years of his life: his failed marriage; his son Robert, now a high-powered movie producer in San Francisco; teaching; and Teddy, a brother with Down syndrome who drowned as a boy. With reconciliation in the offing, Cliff describes himself as "just a geezer heading home."
Grove Press. 255 pages. $24. ISBN: 0802118631

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Told in an utterly believable, if somewhat flat-footed first-person voice (the old brown Taurus of modern American narration), the story remains the unflagging revelation of Cliff’s attempt to shed his former life by crossing the boundaries of as many states of the Union as he can reach in a year. … Wives, daughters of America, for your reading Papa, this ribald, questing, utterly charming and Zen-serious novel about being male, 60 and (well, almost) alone, is the book of the year." Alan Cheuse

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"More thought-driven than plot-driven, [The English Major] may seem in some ways Harrison’s least serious novel. However, make no mistake: This is a master writer who has some important things to say about life and how to live it." Ron Antonucci

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Harrison’s rambling narrative is peppered with his characteristic insights and asides. … After a long and idiosyncratic literary career, Harrison the storyteller is still at the top of his game." Tim McNulty

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Part of the problem is that he attacks his targets not with a satirist’s sharp blade, but with a curmudgeon’s rolled-up newspaper. … Still, it’s no surprise that Harrison is superb on his favorite topics: fishing; farming; food and drink; nature; and animals." John Broening

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cliff is an inversion of the classic Harrison hero. … Harrison’s prose begins to loosen as The English Major progresses, as if, without the tectonic pressures of death and history forcing his sentences into alignment, he can’t perform his usual alchemy." Jennifer Egan

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Harrison’s wit and gorgeous descriptions make the road trip a fascinating adventure. … Overall, The English Major is a rollicking page-turner, full of Harrison’s biting humor and set against a rugged and beautiful landscape." Ashley Simpson Shires

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Without any preachiness or sentiment, Harrison gives us more than one dimension to live on. … But he is too hard on women in this novel, too callous, too shallow, and it makes his very sentence structure choppy and lopsided." Susan Salter Reynolds

Critical Summary

Jim Harrison has long held the title of Best American Writer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. A poet first (and, by Harrison’s own admission, foremost), he turned to fiction almost 40 years ago with the publication of his novel Wolf. Harrison is at his best when he focuses on his characters’ essential humanity and the tragicomic events that shape their lives. His raw humor and sharp (and for the most part, good-natured) satire occasionally met with ambivalence from critics, but The English Major is the work of a seasoned, sure-footed storyteller. This novel is vintage Harrison, and for most readers, that’s a very good thing indeed.