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A writer at life's banquet

Novelist and essayist Jim Harrison expresses his appetite for existence in a love of food, an admiration of women and, now, a memoir.

November 24, 2002|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — "Here's the thing about France," Jim Harrison says. "I'm in Paris and I go to visit the graves of Sartre and De Beauvoir. I sit down on a bench and who is sitting next to me but the old man who buried them. We go off and share a bottle of wine."

Harrison knows of at least 25 young women in France, where his books sell even better than they do in the U.S. or any of the other 23 countries that love his work, who are named Dalva, after his most famous character in the novel of the same name. "I go over there, they sit in my lap and have their pictures taken."

No doubt followed by foie gras and a 1961 Margaux.

Because, for Harrison, memories and food are so intertwined as to be one. Which is why his new book, "Off to the Side," is part memoir and part menu from a 64-year-old writer who is part man and part beast. Well, beast might not be right (although more than one feminist has used the word to describe him). Certainly creature; bear, quail, ox, octopus, pig ... cooked, raw, he's eaten them all. Every time he eats bear, he says, he dreams about one. This has caused him to cut back on bear meat, for he is also -- though he might not admit it in public -- a deeply spiritual, reverent and grateful man.

Of the 22 hours here in Harrison's presence, 17 were spent eating and talking; one regrets needing to take five hours for sleep, for surely one has missed something. Known for his legendary vitality and appetite, Harrison has written 11 novels, nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, one children's book and more screenplays than he cares to remember. His book of essays on food, "The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand" (2001), has just been reissued in paperback. He's working on a novel that begins on Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- where he grew up and returns frequently to regain his sanity -- and ends in Veracruz, Mexico, a story that "combines greed, sex and religion in a tight little knot."

The child of two Swedes, Harrison is ruddy and wild-eyed, courtesy of a little girl who stuck a broken bottle in his left eye and blinded it when he was 7. He is round and he has gout. When he reaches any kind of mental impasse, he rubs his head vigorously, leaving his hair standing up at all angles. Women, all ages, shapes and sizes, are drawn to him as if he could cure them and all the men in the world of lifelessness and cruelty.

When he talks to a woman, he often idly rubs his fingers across her hands, or puts an arm around her or touches her cheek. Rumor has it that he once thanked a woman in a restaurant for her beauty.

Peter Lewis, Harrison's friend of 25 years and the owner of one of Seattle's most elegant and friendly four-star restaurants, Campagna, says that for Harrison, "it's all an adventure in consciousness." This adventure has, at times, been a frightening journey for the writer, who tells of a lifetime battling an irrepressible depression that can only be beaten back by time spent incommunicado in the wild. Sometimes, even that doesn't work.

When he was 22 his beloved father, who was 53, and sister Judith, who was 19, were killed by a drunk driver in a head-on collision, leaving Jim, his older brother, John, his mother, little brother David, who was 11, and sister Mary, who was 12. "We never missed kissing each other good night," Harrison writes, "and now two of us were forever missing." David, Jim says, did not speak for a year. Jim, says David, was also forever altered.

David and his wife, Cindy, and a nephew have come over from Bainbridge Island to attend Harrison's reading at Elliott Bay Bookstore. David looks a lot like his brother but softer and less dark. Harrison writes in the memoir that David was reading at a graduate school level by the time he was in kindergarten. David is equally proud of Jim -- he shows off a photo of the writer at 18 and says, "he was the one who was going to do it, he was going to be a writer. Bighearted man," he says, and kicks at the floor.

About 300 people are crammed into the store to hear Harrison read. The writer knows a lot of people in the crowd and almost all of them stand in line for well over an hour to say hello and have him sign their copies of the memoir. Rick Simonson, the manager for 25 years and architect of a reading series that features one, sometimes two, authors a day, briefly introduces Harrison, who has promised not to read for more than 22 minutes, after which, he feels, most readings lose their edge.

'An excess of life'

Harrison started with poetry, "felt cramped," and moved into fiction. "I'm not a kiss-and-tell sort of person," Harrison tells a guest, by way of explaining the memoir, which covers his childhood, his life as a starving writer, shared with wife Linda, whom he has been married to now for 40 years ("I fell in love with her when I was 14 and I saw her walking up some steps in riding pants"), and their two daughters, Jamie and Anna, and his life in Hollywood.

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