The English Major

My book club, like a lot of all-female book clubs, tends to mostly read books by and about women. If we read a book by or about men, it’s usually either a classic like On the Road or a nonfiction book about a topic of interest like Into the Wild. One of the women in the group thought it might be interesting to read a work of “men’s fiction” and so our November book was The English Major by Jim Harrison, perhaps better known to many (including me) as the author of Legends of the Fall.

Cliff, the hero of The English Major, is a 60-something former English teacher who quit teaching and became a farmer. His wife, Vivian, has just left him for Fred, a high school classmate with an Italian sports car. Cliff sells his farm and decides to go on a road trip through all 50 states.

The book is Cliff’s first-person account of his journey, and it’s written in a free-flowing stream-of-consciousness style, filled with run-on sentences and odd non sequiturs. Here, he considers his new-found freedom:

The farm no longer owned me and thus it was that I left our green valley where I had spent so many years. I skipped the auction for emotional reasons and went trout fishing on the Pigeon River with a doctor friend. He’s the most unsuccessful doctor anyone knows. He can’t get up in the morning because he drinks too much. He put me on Wellbutrin to calm me down and to be frank he also gave me lots of samples of Viagra and Levitra for my trip, plus the phone number of a “hot chick” in St. Paul, Minnesota. I always listened to A Prairie Home Companion but not Vivian who thinks it’s corny. When I had supper at the diner last night Babe told me that Vivian is riding for a fall. She said Fred is having an affair with Vivian to try to recapture his high school glory. This is a little hard for me to understand because I don’t remember high school as being glorious.

I’ll admit right off that a stream-of-consciousness style doesn’t generally work for me. I can see the art in it, but I rarely enjoy it much. So the writing was a pretty big obstacle for me here. I kept wanting to pull out my blue editing pencil and add commas and periods and transitional words. This would, of course, completely obliterate the voice the author is intentionally trying to create, but the voice proved to be too much of a distraction for me. Plus, this rather antic sort of style didn’t seem to fit a guy who listens to NPR and reads Thoreau. Cliff seems like a quiet, contemplative sort of guy, even if he is a bit of an odd duck, but the writing feels entirely different.

The road trip itself had its amusing moments. Cliff’s attitude toward cell phones made me laugh. He only gets one when he’s forced to, and he resents it every time it rings, usually because it’s the obnoxious sex-crazed Marybelle, a former student who comes with him and plagues him with demands, sexual and otherwise. Marybelle lectures him for leaving his cell phone in the suitcase in the trunk:

“Cliff, a cell phone isn’t a toy. It’s a very lucky technical miracle for all of us. It’s a prime weapon against our essential loneliness.”

“I can’t say I’ve even felt that lonely.” I knew it was a mistake to say this but I couldn’t help myself.

“Bullshit. You’re utterly lonely without knowing it. You wandered around that farm in a state of absolute loneliness. I bet you talked more to your dog than to your wife.”

“Vivian got so she mostly wanted to talk about real estate and maybe a little about whatever diet she was on.”

“The question is, did you try to get interested in her issues? Maybe real estate is more creative than farming?”

For the most part, I liked Cliff as a character. I liked his independence and his unwillingness to give in to modern pressures. He was likably eccentric in his plans and dreams—the main one being to rename all the U.S. states and birds—and he seemed comfortable in his own skin, if not in his current situation. I did get annoyed about his ogling of every woman who came along and his describing the attendant physical responses, but that could have to do with the fact that I’m a woman. Then again, I’ve read plenty of books by and about men that were frank about sexual desire and the sometimes nonsensical biological vagaries of said desire, but that didn’t treat every woman as a sex object. (Stephen King comes to mind as an author who handles that pretty well.)

Of course, I don’t have to approve of everything about a character to enjoy reading about the character. And I did like plenty about Cliff. But on the whole, this book never quite pulled me in. It’s short—just 254 pages—and it reads pretty quickly, so I never considered giving up on it, but I doubt I’ll remember it six months from now.

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9 Responses to The English Major

  1. softdrink says:

    Following stream of consciousness writing is difficult for me, too.

  2. Stream of consciousness gives me terrible flashbacks to Faulkner in high school. I just can’t do it. I’m also quite perturbed whenever sexuality is poorly handled, no matter who is ogling who- it’s too easy to break suspension of disbelief in that category.

  3. Steph says:

    I’m with everyone who has decried stream of consciousness writing – there are a few authors who I think can get away with it (Jose Saramago has this kind of style, but it doesn’t bother me there), but by and large I find it a pain to read. Despite all the hoo ha surrounding Woolf and Faulkner, I’ve never been able to read either of them because of the whole SOC thing. Given your general apathy towards this one, I think I’ll skip it!

  4. Kathleen says:

    I like the premise of the book but that whole stream of consciousness thing would probably stop me in my tracks. I remember thinking my head would explode when I read The Sound and The Fury in college.

  5. Jenny says:

    I don’t mind stream of consciousness style if it’s done well, but this sounds terrible. “I always listened to A Prairie Home Companion but not Vivian who thinks it’s corny”? Sounds like he listens to Garrison Keillor but not to his wife. Argh.

    I’m not sure I believe in “men’s fiction” (or women’s, or children’s.) Good fiction should be for everyone, shouldn’t it? Maybe I’m being too essentialist, though. Or not essentialist enough. :)

  6. Teresa says:

    softdrink: The stream of consciousness writing here wasn’t all that difficult (I could always follow it), but it felt wrong.

    Literary Omnivore: This was much easier than Faulkner! (My flashbacks are to Sound and the Fury in college. Shudder.) The sexual stuff was just over the top, IMO. Every woman was a sex object. Every. Single. One.

    Steph: Saramago is exactly what stream of consciousness should be! He’s amazing. But this, not so much.

    Kathleen: Oh, this is much easier than Sound and the Fury. There’s only one narrator, for one thing. It’s just not skillfully done.

    Jenny: I was itching to pull out my blue editing pencil for that passage. And Cliff was supposed to be an English teacher? I agree with you that the best fiction should offer something for everyone. And if we’re going to get philosophical, the essence of good fiction remains the same, whatever the “accidents” of a particular piece of writing might be. But certain accidents will appeal to some audiences more than others.

  7. Cara Powers says:

    That is exactly why I couldn’t finish. The stream of consciousness provided didn’t fit with what we knew of the character. Too much cognitive dissonance for me.

  8. Teresa says:

    Cara: The writing style wasn’t horrible (although it’s not my favorite kind of writing), but it just didn’t fit. So frustrating.

  9. Pingback: Everyday I Write the Book » THE ENGLISH MAJOR by Jim Harrison

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