At the age of 11, I was obsessed with maps and, in particular, with a puzzle map of the United States, which I pestered my parents about for weeks until they bought me one. Jim Harrison’s idée fixe with a similar object appears to have been the inspiration for his fine new novel, The English Major.
At the age of 60, Cliff finds himself divorced and dispossessed of the Michigan farm he’s worked for decades. Once a high school English teacher, he’d taken over his father-in-law’s farm upon his death and, after years of tending and harvesting cherries and managing livestock, he discovers, “I had snuffed out the dim bulb in the life of my mind pretending I was exclusively a Son of the Soil.”
Now, his wife Vivian, who in middle age has become independent both financially and sexually, takes a lover and sells the farm. With $100,000, the one-tenth of the proceeds Vivian grants him, Craig takes to the road. A puzzle map of the United States has inspired him to visit all 50 states and the novel is the story of this journey. Along the way, we will learn each state flower, bird, and motto. However, this is no guided tour of the lower 48, but a sexy, funny meditation on growing old and how the way we change over the years can both add to the richness of life and, almost at the same time, leave us stultified when we don’t change often enough.
Setting out from Michigan through Wisconsin to Minnesota (each chapter is named for the current state), tossing each state’s puzzle piece into a river as he leaves it for the next, Craig visits his favorite former student, Marybelle, 20 years his junior, still very attractive and highly sexed, as well as highly neurotic. Unhappily married to an anthropology professor, she is going through her own mid-life crisis. For parts of the novel she will be a passenger on Craig’s journey, both tantalizing (and sexually exhausting) him, as well as urging him to take control of his life once again.
The second leg of the trip takes him through the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest and down to San Francisco where Craig’s gay son Robert is making a fortune as a junior producer in the motion picture industry. Though Craig has abandoned Marybelle to her family in Montana, where her husband is at a dig, Robert buys Marybelle a plane ticket in order to reunite his father with the woman he hopes will re-establish some normalcy in Craig’s life.
Feeling hemmed in by all this connection with his previous existence, Craig steals off to continue his journey through the Southwest. By the time Craig reaches New Mexico, after a stay at a snake farm (where an old friend informs him, “A woman in a hammock is always faithful. It’s a question of physics, not morals.”), and a brush with the border police, the novel is more than two-thirds gone and we begin to wonder how Harrison will cram in the remaining states. He won’t.
The On Star phone system in the Tahoe his son has bought for him begins to reel him back in to his former life. Marybelle is “finding herself” in the theatre life in San Francisco, and Vivian has been diagnosed with Type Two diabetes, causing both Robert and Vivian to appeal to Craig to return to Michigan. Vivian seeks a reconciliation, if not re-cohabitation.
The last third of the novel involves a week’s stay in a small Montana town to fish the big brown trout in the rivers there, and a brief, chaste, but provocative encounter with a pretty young waitress, then Craig’s coming home.
Throughout the trip, Craig has been mulling his idea to rename each state and its bird. Eventually, this idea takes on the importance of an artistic vocation and reinvigorates the “mind at play” that Craig once enjoyed as an English major.
Throughout, the book tosses out bits and hints of Thoreau, Emerson, Kerouac, and Hemingway, and asserts in Craig’s development the notion that however ineluctable sex and death may be, the life of the mind, or lack thereof, is where we find or lose our true selves. The book concludes with a hopeful appendix and Craig’s list of renamed states, all given American Indian names.
The English Major is minor Jim Harrison, without the family epic sweep of Legends of the Fall or True North, but its prose is pure and spare and without extraneous or purple description we get a vivid picture of the beauty to be found across vast portions of this country.
Let’s hope Harrison will write a sequel and have the likeable and funny Craig take us through the remaining 34 states.