Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren

Lundgren’s Lounge: “The Ancient Minstrel,” by Jim Harrison

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence


ca. 2004 --- Jim Harrison --- Image by © R¸dy Waks /Corbis Outline

During a lifetime of obsessive reading, there are certain authors whose new work merits an immediate trip to the bookstore for a hardcover copy… Jim Harrison is on that short list and now graces us with a new collection, The Ancient Minstrel. The trilogy of novellas is deeply, richly satisfying in a manner that only Harrison can conjure.

When I sit down to write reviews of Harrison’s works, I often realize that the “order” or “detail” of what I’d just read isn’t always easily recaptured. Harrison writes in his own unique semi-stream of consciousness style, jumping amongst the details of a life like a drunken monkey–or like the way that we consider our lives as we are living them. What prevails is a sense of gaining admittance inside a mind that never fails to capture the reader’s wholehearted attention–whether it be the reminiscences of  the memoirist of the title tale or the adventures of Brown Dog or the rollicking tales of Sunderson, the now-retired detective. Or perhaps most memorably, of any of the surpassingly lovely women, mostly middle-aged now, strong, self-sufficient women that will make you ache with recognition (if you are lucky). The details of these characters’ lives are conveyed by lovely skeins of words, for that is what they resemble, mercurial formations or skeins, like wild geese, always forging new connections and relations as they move the narrative forward. There is a sense of being lulled into a natural world animated by love and lust and food and alcohol and depravity and dogs and animals, but always a fierce self-consciousness and reflection upon the vagaries of a life.

Jim harrison ancient minstrelFor the cognoscenti, the title novella teases the line between fiction and memoir, so faithful is it to the details of the author’s life. The narrator is a seventy-ish writer, successful because he whored himself out to Hollywood to write screenplays, but also a poet and novelist. And now, as his editor in New York awaits the “big novel” he’s rashly been promised, the poet (as the narrator labels himself), does what makes the most sense to him: he buys a pregnant sow and settles in to raise the piglets. This is a writer with a clear sense of his mortality. Harrison writes:

“What held him back was how could he die with an unfinished novel or sequence of poems in his files ? This was vanity… as if the world were waiting for his books. Whoever told writers they were so important to the destiny of man? … thousands and thousands… dropped into the void without a sound.”

The next story, “Eggs,” is an achingly lovely depiction of the life of a woman, Catherine, from young girlhood and surviving the London Blitz to finding lasting refuge on a farm in Montana, where she raises pigs and cows and especially her beloved chickens. It is hard to avoid thinking of the passing of Linda, Harrison’s wife of 55 years, last fall and sensing the novella as a memorial to his lifelong partner. The trilogy ends with a final tale of retired (and increasingly lecherous), detective Sunderson–the detective is on the trail of a cult that achieves satori by howling along with the local zoo’s howler monkeys, but it is really a sobering tale of an aging alpha male, seemingly incapable of reigning in his libidinal impulses–suffice it to say, it does not end well.

In his previous collection another Harrison character offers the following counsel for a satisfying life:

get outside as often as possible, ideally right now

take your meals seriously

keep your libido stoked

have a sense of humor about yourself

read good books

scorn snobs and greedheads

live the examined life.

Advice well-taken and representative of the philosophy of life as extolled by the marvelous assemblage of characters dotting the landscape of the fiction of one of our greatest living writers.


Bill Lundgren

[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a friend of  Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”), where you can buy this book and about a million others, from booksellers who care.  Bill keeps a bird named Ruby, a blind pug named Pearl, and a couple of fine bird dogs, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College. ]

  1. Lucinda Kempe writes:

    Thank you. Just discovered Harrison and am reading Letters to Yesenin. His memoir next, then perhaps these stories. Yes, what arrogance we have thinking the world is waiting for what we write, but how marvelous that we do it anyway.

  2. Jim Nichols writes:

    Loved this…I went looking for something on Harrison, and was lucky to find it.

  3. coco bunzl writes:

    would love to follow your blog