Jim Harrison’s name has appeared in our table of contents in almost every issue since Brick 71, Summer 2003. His regular column for us, called “Eat or Die,” was mostly about food, but there were several digressions of a political, scurrilous, or philosophical nature in all of them. In print, he was endlessly interesting and always astonishing. “Eat or Die” became a favourite with our readers because it was an unvarnished glance into the mind of an erudite and worldly person, and his writing voice was intimate and authentic.
He didn’t like the internet, so when you got an email from him, it was via his tireless and loving secretary, Joyce Bahle. He would fax a handwritten message to her, and she would type it up and send it. He received our emails via the reverse process. It was laborious and often funny, with Joyce passing along the occasional tidbit of Harrisonian tittle-tattle. Jim also sent gifts from time to time, and not just of financial support to the magazine. Early on, when a managing editor caught a mistake that would have horrified him in print, he sent her a hundred dollars and instructed her to buy the best bottle of Gigondas she could find.
Jim’s friends were scattered all over the globe, an army of writers, drinking friends, fishing buddies, home-cooks, and Hollywood royalty. (He once shared a half pound of beluga caviar with Orson Welles.) In Toronto, in the 2000s, he was a frequent presence in certain homes. A master raconteur with easy erudition, at most of these meals he nevertheless also said something so lewd that guests who were there can still repeat these utterances verbatim. (And some can do a bang-up impression of his nasal, smoky voice, including the preamble that often preceded these pornographic asides: “Would it be so wrong if . . . ?” It was oddly fitting that a childhood accident left him with a permanent wink.)
I was fortunate to get to know him a little over the years at Brick. On a trip to France, he came to Narbonne to spend a couple of days with me and my family. A number of his friends flocked south to be with him. We all ate together in Brasserie Co, beside the ancient Aude flowing in the Canal de la Robine. Later that week, Jim and I took a long drive in the country and smoked Natural American Spirit cigarettes with the windows down. He had a habit of puffing idly throughout the day, but he’d often extinguish a cigarette halfway through and stick it in his shirt pocket for later. I could only smoke half at a time (“smoking” American Spirits is more like sucking on the end of a stick), and he took my unfinished halves and mingled them with his own.
Jim Harrison also pissed people off and feuded and crossed lines. Last year, for the first time, we asked him to cut something from his column. He did, but he was angry with us and declined to write one the following issue. I wrote to him in the new year, to offer my condolences on the loss of his wife, Linda, but also to patch things up between us, at least personally. He didn’t have time to reply to my letter, but I like to think he’d have forgiven us and me and come back to write for us again.
Jim was a profane presence in a world of polite conversation, a man with his feet planted on the earth. We loved him, ferociously, and we mourn him with so many who loved him as well. We vow to eat a huge meal in his honour, complete with enough good wine to make us laugh, and weep, and howl at the moon in his memory.
Michael Redhill is a novelist, poet, playwright, and a former publisher of Brick. He also writes crime fiction under the name Inger Ash Wolfe and has been awarded Best Handwriting by The National League of Spelunkers, twice.