4 stars overall / 5 stars audio narration
“It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn’t.” With these words, Jim Harrison begins a riotous, moving novel that sends a sixty-something man, divorced and robbed of his farm by a late-blooming real estate shark of an ex-wife, on a road trip across America, armed with a childhood puzzle of the United States and a mission to rename all the states and state birds to overcome the banal names men have given them. Cliff’s adventures take him through a whirlwind affair with a former student from his high school-teacher days twenty-some years before; to a “snake farm” in Arizona owned by an old classmate; and to the high-octane existence of his son, a big-time movie producer who has just bought an apartment over the Presidio in San Francisco.” The English Major is the map of a man’s journey into – and out of – himself, and it is vintage Harrison: reflective, big-picture American, and replete with wicked wit.
Starting out, I wasn’t completely sure I would like this book, but honestly, it really grew on me. Jim Harrison has a amazing command of the English language, and given the subject matter of the book (a newly divorced, 60-year-old retired farmer who’s somewhat on the horny side goes on a cross country trek to see the United States), I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the writing like I did. Perhaps making his protagonist a former English teacher helped, but I think what really made this book was the brilliant narrator. He so perfectly captured Cliff’s voice, his personality, and his view of the world that at times it was the deadpan delivery of some of Cliff’s more hilarious hijinks that made me laugh out loud. I am not typically one who chooses books that are marked as “funny,” but this couples what the back-of-the-book blurb calls “wicked wit” with an interesting story and truly good writing, and that makes it a winner.
It also got me thinking that, contrary to my studious avoidance of reading anything that even slightly smelled of the Beat Movement, I might ought to reconsider reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Perhaps I’ve erroneously shunned it as being too artsy-fartsy for me. Judging from my positive reaction to this cross-country mission to rename the states and birds, I’m beginning to wonder if I’d like Kerouac after all.