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THE ENGLISH MAJOR by Jim Harrison

THE ENGLISH MAJOR

By Jim Harrison

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1863-9
Publisher: Grove

Rambling tale from Harrison (Returning to Earth, 2006, etc.) of a Michigan farmer, dumped by his wife after 38 years, who decides to visit all 48 states in the continental United States.

Cliff only makes it to 16 states—unsurprisingly, since our amiable narrator is easily distracted and not very firm of purpose. He went to college and became a high-school English teacher to escape the “family fate” of tilling the land, but fell right back into farming after wife Vivian’s father died. When Vivian, embarked on an adulterous affair, sells their 200-acre farm, Cliff uncomplainingly pockets his meager share of the proceeds and hits the road. As he crosses into each new state, he shares with us its official nickname, bird, flower and motto…when he doesn’t forget. He’s somewhat preoccupied by Marybelle, a former student who comes along for the ride from Minnesota to Montana. They’re having fabulous sex en route, but Cliff begins to tire of Marybelle, especially when she’s talking endlessly on her cell phone. Harrison wrings a good deal of wry comedy from 60-year-old Cliff’s discovery that “given more than enough sex you see that it isn’t the be all and end all,” and from Marybelle’s endless quest for decent reception. Also fairly funny are conversations with son Bob, a gay movie-location scout who’s always telling Cliff how clueless he is and who seems to enjoy talking to Marybelle more than to his father. Both agree with Vivian that Cliff is meandering through life and needs to pull himself together. But readers will probably enjoy the rambling travelogue Cliff provides in lieu of getting a grip. He’s an engaging narrator: curmudgeonly about cell phones, Republicans and Marybelle’s psychobabble, enthusiastic about nature and food, and basically loads nicer than any other character. What exactly the point of this story might be is hard to say, especially when Cliff winds up back in Michigan and (maybe) back with Vivian.

Lightweight, but the author’s fans will find this an agreeable rest from the dark, deep fictions on which Harrison’s reputation properly rests.