Warlock by Jim Harrison

One of the first Jim Harrison books I ever read was Warlock and I remember loving it. In the fall of 1993 I went to Bordeaux as an ignorant young wine writer for Wine & Spirits magazine and had dinner at a modest chateau in one of the more modest appellations of the region–Cotes de Bourg or Cotes de Castillon or something like that. I learned two things at that dinner that I have never forgotten. One was that butter leaf lettuce drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt makes a delicious, wine friendly (no vinegar) salad. The other was an introduction to the existence of Jim Harrison, an American writer almost more highly regarded in France than in his home country. “You Americans,” the host Denis Dubourdieu fairly sneered, “You don’t even know your best writers!”

Rather than be insulted, I was intrigued and as soon as I got home sought out as many Jim Harrison novels as I could find. I bought two paperbacks–Farmer and the somewhat longer Warlock–and found a hardbound edition of The Woman Lit by Fireflies.

(Merde, I just looked up Denis Dubourdieu and found out that he died in 2016, only 67 years old, of brain cancer. He had been a professor at the University of Bordeaux as well as a renowned winemaker and consultant to the great Chateau Cheval Blanc. We must have been dining at Chateau Reynon, somewhere in the Pessac Leognan area of Graves.)

Before I reread Warlock for this blog though, I reread Harrison’s autobiography, Off to the Side. In the years since hearing Harrison’s name for the first time in 1993, I’ve read a bunch of his novels, stories, poems and essays and seen a few of the mediocre movies based on his work. I’d gotten bored with his gluttonous, heavy drinking, horn-dog, wannabe Native American persona. His autobiography starts out with a lot of that annoying BS too: the ugly word “pecker” and other synonyms for penis are sprinkled throughout, as per usual with Harrison.

The book gets better after the first third, with some interesting insights. But he refers to his famous friend Jack Nicholson more than I think he needs to, and some of the Nicholson quotes outshine any of Harrison’s own quips, making the writer seem almost more fan than friend. Leaning on Nicholson to add interest to the book seems to me a mistake of an aging writer who relies on cool quotes overmuch.

It blew my mind that Harrison writes in his autobiography that the only book of his that he really dislikes is Warlock! So many of his later novels seem sentimental and heavy to me–I didn’t care for Dalva or The Beast God Forgot to Invent and other later works. Warlock is light and funny and sexy. It reminds me of a risqué, more literary Rockford Files.

Jim Harrison is also dead. He died in 2016, the same year as Dubordieu, but was much older, 78. I’m 58 and quite a few of the men I admired from that era in my life, 1992-1997, are dead: Wild man of the Loire Valley, Didier Dageneau–a good friend of Denis Dubordieu; Rod Smith, a wine writer I really admired who sent me on a Balzac quest in Paris that same year I discovered Harrison and who got me listening to the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia and Bill Graham are long gone too, not that I ever met them but even to have been in the same building with them in mid-90s San Francisco and Berkeley was a thrill. Not to get maudlin here, but it’s always weird when you start looking people up and find out that they’ve departed the Earth plane.

My second husband and I spent a little time reading aloud to each other before we fell out of love and into the arms of CNN Breaking News (me) and the 24 hour ubiquity of The Golf Channel (him). Prior to that, our favorites were Hemingway and Harrison. We read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Harriosn’s Brown Dog stories about a half-breed hapless alcoholic in Michigan. As a hunter and a winery owner, my ex related to and enjoyed this type of “gourmet outdoorsman” writing, and I loved it too.

Funny coincidence: In 2019 I combined reviews of two books about about manly men, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain had burly Jim Harrison as a guest on his No Reservations show in 2009, which is not available to watch anymore, as well as on a 2016 episode of his Parts Unknown show. I bought the latter episode from You Tube and sat through one of Bourdain’s less interesting hours on the hunting, fishing and frying that is Montana food culture.

Jim Harrison recites some of his poetry in voice over and damn if it isn’t quite affecting. It made me regret donating the couple of poetry books of his that I had. He is fat, wrinkled and toothless in the episode, but still eating, drinking and chain-smoking. The habits of the all-American man of the 50s don’t age well, but Harrison had an agile, slim sidekick who seemed to be his caretaker and good buddy: the Gilligan to his Skipper. The friend prepared on camera a gourmet meal which included elk carpaccio, elk liver pate, fresh trout and a full groaning board of other elevated Montana dishes for Bourdain and Harrison.

Harrison died of a heart attack–no surprise–shortly after the episode was filmed, but the super fit and much younger Bourdain was also dead within two years of the episode, of suicide. Hmmm. Harrison speaks some haunting lines of his poetry as the episode fades to black: “Yesterday I got a call from the outside. I said ‘no’ in thunder. I was a dog on a short chain. Now there is no chain.”

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