Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ancient Minstrel

Novellas are that relatively uncommon literary form that always seem a little bit awkward to me because they are obviously too short to be called novels and are too long to be called short stories. When reading a novella, I can never keep myself from wondering if the author started out intending to write a novel and ran out of story, or if he started out to write a short story and things got out of hand. With Jim Harrison, though, you don't have to wonder. The Ancient Minstrel is his eighth novella collection and he is perhaps still best known for his first such collection, 1979's Legends of the Fall. Harrison obviously loved the novella form almost as much as he loved writing poetry.

The Ancient Minstrel includes three Harrison novellas, “The Ancient Minstrel,” “Eggs,” and the shorter “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.” There is an author's preface to “The Ancient Minstrel” that calls the novella a fictional addition to Harrison's 2002 memoir Off to the Side. Just how much tongue-in-cheek the preface might be is up to the reader to decide for himself because Harrison takes its main character to rather dark places and strange obsessions. The poet/novelist of the story has just turned 70 and his lusty womanizing past seems to be behind him for good. He is married but he and his wife have separated, and although they are still living on the same property, they are living very separate lives. Our writer knows that he should be working on the novel that his publisher is anxious to get its hands on, but he has fallen in love with the idea of raising pigs on his farm – an obsession that has now pushed the novel he was writing right out of his head. Harrison offers here one version of a writer approaching the end of a long, productive career – how closely it might resemble his story is hard to tell.

Jim Harrison
Catherine, the main character of “Eggs,” is the daughter of an unhappy British woman who was conned into marrying the World War II soldier who promised her a new life on his family farm even though he never had any intention of adopting that lifestyle after the war. As a child, Catherine did spend time on her grandparent's farm, along with her mother, during which she developed a lifelong fascination of chickens. She is a strong, self-reliant woman who has no desire or intention of every marrying but she badly wants to have a child, and she knows exactly how she will get that done.

“The Case of the Howling Buddha's” is the shortest of the three novellas in the collection but there is a lot packed into it, including an undercover assignment to kidnap a wealthy man's daughter from a cult and the ugly sexual seduction of a teenage girl by a decades-older man. The main character of this one is a 66-year-old divorced detective who, even at his age, cannot control himself around teenage girls. And when the fifteen-year-old neighbor girl who weeds his garden not only responds to his attention but demands that their sexual affair continue, the man finds that he is too weak to end it despite the fact that it will almost certainly end badly for both him and the girl.

The Ancient Minstrel proves two things for Jim Harrison: the novella works beautifully when it is in the hands of a good writer like him, and he was still very much at the top of his game when he died in March 2016.


  1. Was Legends of the Fall really 1979? It felt like a much older book to me. That's the only thing I've read by Jim Harrison. I'd no idea he was a contemporary, somehow. His book had such a "classic" feel to it. I mean that as high praise, by the way.

    1. His writing really does have a classic feel about it, James, I agree. But, yep, 1979 is the right date for that collection. It had been a while since I had read anything by Harrison, too, but I really thought this was well done and I enjoyed it. He was quite a loss to the literary world.