The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison (2016. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-2456-2)

I stand corrected. After reading two of Harrison’s better known works, Dalva and True North and finding both books far less satisfactory in story and character when compared to his masterpiece novella, Legends of the Fall, I was pretty well convinced that the hype regarding this author’s creative powers was overblown. But, after reading this collection of two novellas and a long short story (the third piece, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” is billed as a novella but it’s too short for that moniker) on a recent Canadian fishing trip, I must edit my prior remarks. Harrison, who died in 2016 at the age of 78, after having lived a life of literary acclaim, maintained his skills right up until the bitter end.

First in the line-up is the title piece, a quirky novella/memoir of an aging writer based upon the author’s own history. “The Ancient Minstrel” is engaging, humorous, touching, and thought provoking; exploring the life of a hard drinking, hard charging literary icon ala Hemingway but with a touch of foreboding and longing to give the portraiture a sense of bitter angst and reality. I only wish the novella had actually been spun into a full blown memoir of the author’s life.

“Eggs” is probably my favorite piece in this brief collection. Catherine, the protagonist, is drawn carefully and lovingly by Harrison and is as good as it gets. Set in the writer’s second home, Montana, this novella fully displays the crisp, brief, yet descriptive and lively writing style that made Harrison such a darling of the literary world. Hemingwayesque and yet, not, Harrison’s prose in this wonderfully conceived piece of fiction proves that, as with “Legends of the Fall”, this writer is the master of the novella form, a form not easily sold in today’s marketplace of words where agents clamor for full length, big spined, epic novels from their literary fold.

Finally, Harrison, who spent much time in Upper Peninsula Michigan escaping the hurly burly world of publishing, gives us his take on Nabokov. The author’s version of a forbidden sexual relationship between an aging private investigator and a neighborhood high school girl is, from the very outset, one of danger and foreboding and yet, the protagonist is unable to resist the lure of innocence:

There had to be an escape route from this obsession. He loathed his mind’s starling capacity to raise up an image of Barbara naked below the waist…He remembered the name of the mind doctor that Diane (his ex-wife) had given him. It might be time to bite the bullet and go., but would the man hold his information in confidence?…What was it about our sexual impulses that demolished us and how did he end up with his ass in this sling?

This was Jim Harrison’s last effort for his readers. I won’t claim I was a fan of his work before this slender volume came out. I am now.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.





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