On the Road

Jim Harrison's new road novel prompts memories of a multitude of travel guides and essays, from de Tocqueville to the present.

Book Digest With nearly 30 books of novellas, novels, stories, essays, poetry, and food and travel writing under his ample belt, one might expect Jim Harrison’s name to have to have wider currency, at least among smart folks that read books. Yet, despite being translated into more than 20 languages and selling well, I rarely meet other readers of Mr. Harrison’s. Living in New England could explain that—Harrison once told me he had a reading here, attended by a smattering of people—the next night in Jackson, Miss., there was an audience of a few hundred appreciative souls. For his large and largely invisible audience I am pleased to note Harrison’s new novel, The English Major (which is not about a British soldier), which has 60-year-old Michigan farmer Cliff, recently divorced from real estate broker wife Viv, still grieving over the passing of his 13-year-old Labrador mix Lola, embarking upon a road trip around America, using a jigsaw puzzle of the U.S. as a template as the itinerary for his voyage—at one point vowing to rename the states and their state birds as a gesture against some unidentified banality.

One of the pleasures of reading Harrison is that his character’s first-person ruminations are honest and sage and frequently amble to the funny side. For example, sex—which is still (I hope) a vital part of the human experience—is given its proper, deep-breathing due. In this case, even for a 60-year-old geezer. Throughout, Harrison scribes a lively balance between the way English major/mentor Cliff observes and comments on both his outer and inner peregrinations.

By the way, here are some of the renamed states: New York/Iroquois, Georgia/Creek, Oklahoma/Cherokee, Florida/Seminole, South Dakota/Lakota, Wyoming/Cheyenne.

You get it, right?

Speaking of road trips and road books—the quintessential American activity since de Tocqueville, whose 1830s trip has since been reiterated by Richard Reeves (American Journey) in the 1980s and recently by Bernard-Henri Lévy (American Vertigo) in the 21st century, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, claiming inspiration from the New Deal’s WPA’s state guides, corralled 50 writers to write about the 50 states for State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America—including a wonderful bonus of a conversation with Edward P. Jones on Washington, D.C.

I leave it to you to ponder the odd couplings, but my vote goes to Dagoberto Gilb writing on Iowa. It should not go unnoted that in 1922 The Nation launched a series of articles on each state, written by a diverse and contentious gaggle of writers—Edmund Wilson (New Jersey), Theodore Dreiser (Indiana), H.L. Mencken (Maryland), W.E.B. DuBois (Georgia), Willa Cather (Nebraska), and Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota)—which was anthologized in two volumes in 1923 and 1924 as These United States. In 2003 The Nation repeated that project, edited by John Leonard, with the likes of Frank Conroy, James Lee Burke, Luc Sante, Mike Davis, Ana Castillo, Jim Grimsley, Rosario Ferré, Larry Watson, Elizabeth Benedict, and Donald Hall.

All this leaves me wondering when someone will get the bright idea for the Last American Road Trip…
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