Upon learning of Jim Harrison’s death, reputedly hunched over his typewriter at work on a poem, I gather some of my favorite books and walk to a nearby bar. Perching on a stool by the window, I order a tequila cocktail and a half dozen Malpeque oysters. The oysters arrive, lascivious, nearly quivering in their fleshy wetness on a bed of ice. The drink comes pink, in a daiquiri glass, topped with an orchid blossom. Presentations can be misleading; the liquor is strong and the mixture more pepperysour than sweet.
Though a modest spread by Harrison’s standards, it feels right. He reportedly ate 144 oysters in a sitting. I’m certain that he would appreciate the quality, despite the meager quantity. I also expect he would understand my predicament, my own words not selling quite as well as I’d hoped in the previous months.
I got to the bar just in time; happy hour ends in ten minutes, at which point the price of the bivalves will double and I will lament not ordering an even dozen and a second cocktail. Harrison’s death coincides with my short stint in New York City, making a go at being married and being a writer, two things well within Harrison’s purview. Some of what I knew about this city and being a writer comes from Harrison’s tales, though I haven’t the budget, success, or audacity to replicate his exploits. I’ll soon return to Montana in time for trout season, a pilgrimage he made religiously from 1968 up until his death 48 years later.
My relationship with Harrison, or rather, my relationship with his work and his mythos, is a poorly balanced margarita with too much salt on the rim. I only met the man once, an experience I later described to rooms full of college literature students as immensely disappointing. I used the anecdote to cleanly illustrate the divide between the author and the work. Anecdotes being what they are—paper—thin facsimiles meant to represent the messiness of human experience in clean lines with crisp character—my Harrison story didn’t come close to expressing the full range of those fifteen minutes. But standing in front of a room of students who had paid good money to learn something illuminating about Outdoor Literature, I needed to say something clear and profound. Ninety eyes stared from skulls stuffed with expectation. Okay, probably two thirds of those skulls were stuffed with hope that I’d let them leave early, but still, that’s thirty eyes waiting on the promise of expertise and wisdom—if not brilliance—or at least, some reassurance that their climbing tuitions were not blatant robbery.