On the Road with a Liberal

In late February I read a novel by Jim Harrison (perhaps best known for Legends of the Fall) that those who enjoy tales of the road will find a lot of fun—The English Major (2008), which I happened to find on sale for a buck at my local library in a hardcover edition [Sorry, Mr. Harrison, to cut you out of a well-deserved royalty payment].

And, before I forget, if you like Jim Harrison and road books in general but especially those from oldtimers, you’ll want to track down the late Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress. Well worth your time. (I never met Abbey in person but, shortly before he died, he responded to a letter of mine, promising to take a look at an advance review copy of my first thriller, Storm Track [even though the genre was not one in which he normally read], with the goal of possibly providing a blurb. He died before he could follow up on that. Hey, I hope it wasn’t my thriller that killed him!) But back to Harrison and The English Major.

Harrison’s protagonist, writing in the first person, has one of the best definitions of a liberal I’ve ever read (in a work of fiction). Here’s what the sixty-something man has to say shortly before his divorce (and I’ve cut a bit from the middle of this passage):

This last day was especially hard because Viv [his wife] was not a liberal democrat like myself and made no attempt at fairness while she was splitting up our mutual possessions … During summer heat waves when we were sprinkling the yard so it wouldn’t turn brown Viv made no attempt when moving the sprinkler to make sure each patch of yard got its fair share of water. Liberal democrats, like me, are careful about such things. When you’re throwing out cracked corn to chickens and one is late arriving you throw an extra handful her way. When slopping the pigs I always made sure I carried my walking stick to do some gut poking to allow the runt to get a goodly share.

Very nice! But speaking of pigs … As a high schooler I did my share of slopping pigs, including a sow that I bought for 25 bucks when she was still a wiener and raised along with the family pigs and Angus cattle. My sow (I don’t recall ever naming her) had 17 piglets her first time out, which back then felt like a world record to me, especially with me out there in the birthing shed cleaning off the birth sack as the piglets popped out, clipping eye teeth (so they wouldn’t injure or upset the sow when suckling), and tying off and cutting the umbilical cords after which I’d dip the end in iodine. But whereas Harrison’s protagonist uses a stick for “gut poking” we used a cut-off piece of broom handle to whack them across the snout if they got too greedy or stepped in the trough (half of an old hot water heater cut vertically). It takes a lot to make a pig mind!

Conclusion? Maybe I wasn’t so liberal at the time. Brute force reigns on a farm!

Anyway, read Jim Harrison’s The English Major for a fine, fun time—on the road again.

Evelyn Waugh redux

Having posted my thoughts on two books by Mr. Evelyn Waugh a few weeks ago, I thought I’d add a postscript. I’ve gone on to read both Scoop (a sendup of sensationalist journalism), which I didn’t care for that much, and Decline and Fall, the latter so good that I hated to see it end. Here are a few passages from what the Times Literary Supplement called “a savagely comic masterpiece.”

“Nonsense!” said Lady Circumference. “The boy’s a dunderhead. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t be here. He wants beatin’ and hittin’ and knockin’ about generally, and then he’ll be no good. That grass is shockin’ bad on the terrace, Doctor; you ought to sand it down and resow it …

I like that unexpected “he’ll be no good” (showing that the traditional treatment of a dunderhead really doesn’t produce a good kid!) and then the abrupt change of topic, which makes the grass as important as the boy.

Then we have a Vicar who makes this comment about another man:

“He seems deeply interested in Church matters. Are you quite sure he is right in the head? I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.”

Those of us who haven’t spent time in jail, thus attesting to the horrors of imprisonment, might occasionally have thoughts similar to the following:

The next four weeks of solitary confinement were among the happiest of Paul’s life. The physical comforts were certainly meagre, but at the Ritz Paul had learned to appreciate the inadequacy of purely physical comfort. It was so exhilarating, he found, never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals, or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making; in fact, to be free.

When winter is at its most frigid, I have wondered why the homeless don’t toss a rock through a store window just to get arrested and (hopefully) thrown in jail, where it might be a bit warmer. Of course, one would have to be aware of that time-honored and time-honed advice for those going to jail: The best thing you can do is sit down and keep your mouth shut.