• Editor’s note: As the year winds down, I’m taking a page from the mainstream-media playbook and reprinting a handful of this year’s “Mad Dog Unleashed” columns from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. This one was published in the April 15 edition.
Brown Dog sleeps,
and a Mad Dog
tries to wake him
Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch.—Jim Harrison, asked if he had any advice for younger writers, in a 1986 interview with Jim Fergus for the Paris Review
By Patrick O’Grady
You won’t find many bicycles in the works of Jim Harrison. He had bigger fish to fry.
In his essay “Log of the Earthtoy Drifthumper” Harrison recalled riding “a balloon-tire Schwinn 128 miles in one day in reaction to horses and cars.”
And in his first “Brown Dog” novella he wrote briefly and sardonically of a cyclist named Brad who pulled a bicycle from his van “and dressed up a bit goofy in black, shiny stretch shorts, a helmet, goggles and special shoes.”
Brown Dog observed: “He was a real ox and I asked him what the bike set him back and he said a thousand dollars. I was not inclined to believe the figure and I said for that amount they should throw in a motor. He said, ‘Ha-ha,’ asked directions and rode off at top speed on the dirt road, farting like a bucking horse.”
Brad comes to a bad end, breaking a leg in a collision with some elderly ATV riders. And I suspect both Brown Dog and his creator enjoyed a soupçon of schadenfreude at his undoing.
Harrison was a walker, an outdoorsman, and a bear for paying close attention, often quoting Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru: “You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.”
This tight focus is particularly useful when you’re thundering along at full tilt, as Brad reminds us.
A poet’s death. Harrison no longer thunders or even chugs along at his self-described tugboat’s pace. He died on March 26, while writing a poem at his winter home in Arizona.
I didn’t hear about it until the next day, my 62nd birthday. It weirded me out a bit, because I had met Harrison on my 46th birthday, in 2000, after he read from his latest book of poetry in Colorado Springs.
My friend Hal Walter and I went to hear him read and get a couple of books autographed. Hal brought “Just Before Dark,” a collection of non-fiction pieces written for several of the top-shelf publications that greeted our pitches with 10-foot poles. I brought the novel “Warlock,” which I later learned Harrison disliked, though he scribbled “O happy birthday, Patrick” inside it just the same.
I wish I could claim some spiritual, professional or intellectual kinship with the man. But hey — I upset him at one birthday by asking him to kiss his ugliest child, and he upset me back at another by dying. That makes us family of a sort.
We didn’t have much in common. I’m a hack, not a poet. I neither hunt nor fish. And I dress up a bit goofy in black, shiny stretch shorts, a helmet, goggles and special shoes, and ride off at top speed on a dirt road, though I strive to keep the farting to a minimum.
But no other writer is so well represented on my bookshelves. And most of the others there have some link to Jim Harrison.
A virtual literature course. Reading Harrison led me to his old school pal Thomas McGuane (“The Bushwhacked Piano”), who instantly became another favorite.
I was aware that Gary Snyder was the Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” but Harrison actually knew both men. And their interest in Zen became mine.
Other confrères I collected included Sherman Alexie “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven”), Peter Matthiessen (“The Snow Leopard”) and Philip Caputo (“A Rumor of War”).
Harrison shared my love of a good road trip, and so does Caputo. He wrote one up — “The Longest Road” — and then discussed it with William Least Heat Moon, author of “Blue Highways,” the book John Steinbeck meant “Travels With Charley” to be.
Slinging words and hash. That I enjoy cooking is also due in part to Harrison, though I will never approach his virtuosity in the kitchen or on the page.
Chef Mario Batali writes of Harrison screeching for dark meat at some chic bistro, a reflection of his Esquire essay “What Have We Done With the Thighs?”, in which he dismissed the ubiquitous chicken breast as “the moral equivalent of a TV commercial.”
Harrison could be uproariously funny, but he had his bleak periods, too. He suffered paralyzing bouts of depression, and thought often of suicide.
But if you long for death you need only wait. And it was Harrison’s well-chronicled appetite — for food, drink, tobacco and love — that finally capped his pen, just months after his wife, Linda, died.
As McGuane wrote in The New Yorker: “His health had failed, he lost his wife of fifty-five years, and his shingles were a torment. Recent back surgery had made his beloved walks impossible and yet he was undefeated. He was active and creative to the end, but it was time to go: no one was less suited to assisted living.”
Harrison once wrote in a poem: “Our bodies are women who were never meant to be faithful to us.” His finally betrayed him, or paid him back; however you choose to view it, there won’t be any more Jim Harrison.
Quit reading me, right now, and go read him. I’ll be here when you get back.