New York Times bestselling author Jim Harrison is one of our most beloved and acclaimed writers, adored by both readers and critics. In The Ancient Minstrel, Harrison delivers three novellas that highlight his phenomenal range as a writer, shot through with his trademark wit and keen insight into the human condition. Harrison has tremendous fun with his own reputation in the title novella, about an aging writer in Montana who spars with his estranged wife, with whom he still shares a home; weathers the slings and arrows of literary success; and tries to cope with the sow he buys on a whim and the unplanned litter of piglets that follow soon after. In "Eggs," a Montana woman reminisces about staying in London with her grandparents and collecting eggs at their country house. Years later, having never had a child, she attempts to do so. And in "The Case of the Howling Buddhas," retired Detective Sunderson-a recurring character from Harrison's New York Times bestsellers The Great Leader and The Big Seven-is hired as a private investigator to look into a bizarre cult that achieves satori by howling along with howler monkeys at the zoo. Fresh, incisive, and endlessly entertaining, with moments of both profound wisdom and sublime humor, The Ancient Minstrel is an exceptional reminder of why Jim Harrison is one of the most cherished and important writers at work today.
The second, "Eggs", is about a woman who wants to raise chickens and children on her farm. For some reason I picture Meryl Streep.
The third, "The Case of the Howling Buddhas", is about philandering Detective Sunderson, a character from other Harrison writings, who, in his sexual adventures, wanders below the legal age limit. Howling Buddhas revisits some themes found in "The Ancient Minstrel" is the least interesting, reminding me too much of the mindless rooting about for sex we see in 60s literature written by men. At least there is nothing about aging teeth that Kingsley Amis goes on and on about.
There is no evidence in the colophon that these novellas were previously published and so there is no preexisting reason for repeating phrases and expressions across the three. I noticed everyone lunching on brisket and horseradish sandwiches. Some quick research comes up with links to other mentions of brisket and horseradish sandwiches in Mr. Harrison's work. Maybe something mystic here, but I don't get it and it grated a bit.
I received a review copy of "The Ancient Minstrel" by Jim Harrison (Grove Atlantic) through NetGalley.com.
The Ancient Minstrel includes three Harrison novellas, “The Ancient Minstrel,” “Eggs,” and the shorter “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.” There is an author's preface to “The Ancient Minstrel” that calls the novella a fictional addition to Harrison's 2002 memoir Off to the Side. Just how much tongue-in-cheek the preface might be is up to the reader to decide for himself because Harrison takes its main character to rather dark places and strange obsessions. The poet/novelist of the story has just turned 70 and his lusty womanizing past seems to be behind him for good. He is married but he and his wife have separated, and although they are still living on the same property, they are living very separate lives. Our writer knows that he should be working on the novel that his publisher is anxious to get its hands on, but he has fallen in love with the idea of raising pigs on his farm – an obsession that has now pushed the novel he was writing right out of his head. Harrison offers here one version of a writer approaching the end of a long, productive career – how closely it might resemble his story is hard to tell.
Catherine, the main character of “Eggs,” is the daughter of an unhappy British woman who was conned into marrying the World War II soldier who promised her a new life on his family farm even though he never had any intention of adopting that lifestyle after the war. As a child, Catherine did spend time on her grandparent's farm, along with her mother, during which she developed a lifelong fascination of chickens. She is a strong, self-reliant woman who has no desire or intention of every marrying but she badly wants to have a child, and she knows exactly how she will get that done.
“The Case of the Howling Buddha's” is the shortest of the three novellas in the collection but there is a lot packed into it, including an undercover assignment to kidnap a wealthy man's daughter from a cult and the ugly sexual seduction of a teenage girl by a decades-older man. The main character of this one is a 66-year-old divorced detective who, even at his age, cannot control himself around teenage girls. And when the fifteen-year-old neighbor girl who weeds his garden not only responds to his attention but demands that their sexual affair continue, the man finds that he is too weak to end it despite the fact that it will almost certainly end badly for both him and the girl.
The Ancient Minstrel proves two things for Jim Harrison: the novella works beautifully when it is in the hands of a good writer like him, and he was still very much at the top of his game when he died in March 2016.
“I feel absolutely vulnerable and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer whether in the woods or the studio. Your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident.”
Eggs is the story of Catherine, who has had many choices in life, but choses to live on her late grandparents farm in Montana and eventually have a baby to raise on her own. She has seen her own family go off the tracks and avoids it. Farming, animals, dogs, and nature are what she loves. “To Catherine the magic of life was in the spectacular assortment of species.”
The Case of the Howling Buddhas features Harrison’s Detective Sunderson, who has a weird case to investigate, and problems of his own. “Good people don’t have it easy, he reflected, though he wasn’t really a good person.”