Note the change in headline for this story noted at the end – a sudden streak of puritanism on the part of the Times editors?
Jim Harrison Credit Jeff Topping for The New York TimesYou didn’t read the fiction of Jim Harrison, who died on Saturday at 78, for plot. You read it for its appetites. Mr. Harrison was our poet laureate of lumbering desire. His books declared: If you aren’t taking big bites out of whatever life is on offer to you, you are doing it wrong.
Mr. Harrison tattooed every available surface, in his prose, with ideas and impressions about almost everything: sex, death, hawks, paperback books, Hawaiian shirts, getting lost in the woods, mustaches, guns, red wine, illness, roast beef sandwiches and long-form love.
He wrote about macho guys. (He preferred the word “nacho,” like the corn chips.) But they were sensitive and easily wounded macho guys, given to pratfalls of every variety. He liked to give the good lines to women. In “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” (2000), one of his many books of novellas, a woman complains about a central drawback of Manhattan life: “There’s no nature in New York, and the closest you can get is an orgasm.”
Mr. Harrison was a seemingly casual writer; his long sentences flowed like streams. These streams were rocky with wit. I reread his first novel, “Wolf” (1971), not long ago. Mr. Harrison’s hero finds himself driving endlessly across Nevada, and he comments: “I see why they test atomic bombs in this state — if they didn’t I would, only in more central locations.”
My favorite Harrison novels remain his early ones: “Wolf,” “A Good Day to Die” (1973), “Farmer” (1976) and “Warlock” (1981). This might be sentimentality speaking. I read them at an impressionable age, and they meant — and mean — a lot to me.
They offered a worldview, suggesting that to live well was to live with curiosity and humor. They spoke a subliminal truth about writers, that the good ones are rarely the pretentious ones.
REVIEWS OF BOOKS BY JIM HARRISON
‘A Good Day to Die’
‘The Beast God Forgot to Invent’
‘Off to the Side’
‘The Raw and the Cooked’
‘Dead Man’s Float’
These novels set the tone for his oeuvre. He wrote about men moving through the woods and sometimes across the country, on offbeat personal missions or on the run from heartbreak or misfortune. Emotionally and intellectually, they have many self-inflected wounds to lick.
Mr. Harrison was a more cerebral writer than he is often given credit for. In his memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), he reads books as if he were shoveling coal into a blast furnace. He wore his erudition with enviable lightness.
That memoir is a reminder that Mr. Harrison’s nonfiction, to some of us at any rate, is nearly as valuable as his fiction. His essays are collected in two books, “Just Before Dark” (1991) and “The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand” (2001). Both are worth possessing.
Mr. Harrison paid a price for his appetites. His suffered from gout, and his essay about it, “One Foot in the Grave,” collected in “The Raw and the Cooked,” is probably the finest we have about this malady. This is the kind of pain, he declared, “where you limp toward the bathroom calling out for pets that died in your youth.”
Worse, you have no one to blame but yourself. “In bed, after the hysterical removal of the boot, with the foot propped up,” he wrote, “you stare at this blushing, throbbing appendage and do not say ‘Why me?’ because you know so poignantly the answer.”
Mr. Harrison’s later fiction and poetry was increasingly concerned with illness and mortality. Not that he didn’t try to stay limber. In 1988, when he was 50, an interviewer from The Paris Review asked him if he was beginning to lose his stamina.
He seemed to find this question absurd, so he gave an absurd reply. “Actually, it’s increased over what it was 10 years ago,” he said. “I usually dance a half-hour a day to Mexican reggae music with 15-pound dumbbells. I guess it’s aerobic, and the weights keep your arms and chest in shape.”
In a later book, a character thinks, “I have certainly rounded third base and am headed for home plate, which is a hole in the ground.” But his fiction was never morose.
In his most recent book of poems, “Dead Man’s Float,” he remained committed to whatever pleasures were still on offer. He wrote:
My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me —
it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.
I knew Mr. Harrison, not well, just a bit. I edited some of his pieces for The New York Times Book Review, when I was an editor there, and once in a while he’d call when he was in town.
He was a jumbo presence. People gawked at him when he strolled down the street, not because they knew who he was but because they felt they should know who he was. He looked famous.
I was at dinner with him once, at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, when he lit a cigarette. This was about a year after the city’s smoking ban began. Since he got away with it, diners at surrounding tables quickly lit up, too. Briefly, it was a big, happy, smoky room.
Then a waiter came out and made everyone stub out their Marlboros. Except for Mr. Harrison. The waiter brought him a nice ashtray and told him he could keep going. It was hard to say no to anyone who seemed that happy.
A version of this article appears in print on March 29, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Mark Left When Desires Outlast a Man .