The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison’s The Ancient Minstrel is a chaser to life’s intoxicated stumble. Despite almost being able to smell the alcohol vapors from Harrison’s pages, his prose acts as a neutralizer: in a time of wars, infidelity, aging and mortality, there’s a beautiful sort of embrasure out there in the natural world, a nullifying, ancient ecosystem. Harrison burdens his characters with human squalor, from loneliness to lasciviousness, and in two slow-burning novellas resolves them to a point of unsuspecting understanding.
The title novella begins with an author’s note, in which the narrator’s daughters profess their reservations towards their father attempting to write a memoir: “My two married daughters were both at dinner and shouted in chorus, ‘Leave us out!’ I felt near tears (from several drinks) and unfairly treated. I asked, ‘You don’t trust my taste?’ to which I received a resounding ‘No.’”
“The Ancient Minstrel” progresses “in the form of a novella,” as the author explains he “couldn’t bear to lapse into any delusions of reality in nonfiction.” In just a few pages, Harrison sets up a manipulative sort of humility in the semi-autobiographical third-person-”narrative” prose that follows. The novella reads as being perfectly believable: an episodic sprawl about an aged author, reminiscing about his past successes as a screenwriter and poet (Harrison is perhaps best known for writing Legends of the Fall). But with the protagonist’s daughters missing, one should ask, with suspicion, what’s been added in their stead. He repeatedly alights on swarthy sexual exploits (women who remind him of “a ripe peach”) and his masculine, writerly independence, guided by some of the great men of literature:
He would act in the manner of Leo Tolstoy who, when Rilke told him he must write, said, “Then write for God’s sake.” Even nastier was Faulkner who in answer to the questions of what a writer needs said, “Paper and pencil.” In other words, figure it out for yourself, there are no shortcuts. You have to give your entire life to it.
The protagonist, approaching seventy, has plans to be a “free-floating geezer, above criticism from both others and himself.” The novella, curiously, flows similarly: the story takes shape, somewhat, at the mention of a recurring nightmare about a minstrel show, and later gels when the writer decides to start raising pigs. There’s very little story here, but that’s the plan: life goes on and that alone should be story enough. Harrison plays with these expectations, particularly noticeable during a meeting between the author and his editor:
Where’s the narrative? What’s the story about? You promised when you sold the novel in advance that it would be a big sprawling story about love, lust, quarrels, and murder between three farm families, sort of a magnum version of A Thousand Acres.
Harrison’s protagonist tries to make the memoir of “The Ancient Minstrel” into something exciting, something to be proud of, but what ultimately shines through is its quietude and aging’s slow sunset. The collection’s second novella “Eggs” reiterates this theme with its protagonist Catherine and her almost gravitational pull back to farm living. Despite traveling internationally and falling in love with a soldier abroad, and despite the blitzing of London and the mid-century world’s growing political tension, there was always something powerful back home:
Near the pond she sat on a big rock with a peculiar resemblance to a monster stone egg. It had been Catherine’s “magic” place since early childhood. When she frequently visited the farm with her mother she’d walk out to her stone egg when she was disturbed by anything and the stillness of the scene pacified her. How can you draw pure energy from a stone? It was possible for her.
Following these two exceptional, disarmingly subtle stories, Harrison superfluously tacks on “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” to the end of the collection. The novella “The Ancient Minstrel” stepped awkwardly close at times to the musings of a dirty old man, but in “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” Harrison fully embraces this aged id. It’s little more than an indulgent story about an old writer who develops a sexual affair with an underage neighborhood teenager, and probably should have been left out of the collection. Without it, The Ancient Minstrel would have been excellent, a finely-tuned pairing of two novellas in counterpoint.