Lauren Rabaino

Jim Harrison is not exactly a struggling writer. He has written several bestsellers, had some of his work adapted to the big screen, and has all of his fiction and much of his poetry published. Still, he remains an underappreciated gem on the contemporary American literary landscape, regularly producing idiosyncratic and insightful work eagerly consumed by a small but fervently loyal group of readers.

Harrison’s third novel, “Farmer,” was published in 1975, shortly before his breakout success “Legends of the Fall,” and is, in many respects, his most intimate and absorbing. The plot? In essence, Joseph is a 43-year-old farmer and schoolteacher in rural Michigan, circa 1956. While other family members have left to pursue the wider world, he has remained on his small farm to tend his ailing mother and ponder the beauties and mysteries of nature. He struggles between lust and love, enraptured by a beautiful and free-spirited 17-year-old, while feeling a deeper emotional bond with a less sexual but more stable woman who has been a friend since childhood.

I described the plot “in essence” because Harrison is less concerned with overt dramatic conflict and narrative drive than with achieving a finely rendered sense of time, place, character and emotion. It’s not so much plot beats as the beat of the human heart that inform the story. In addition to his work as a novelist, Harrison has written a considerable amount of poetry, and the prose of “Farmer” is touched by a gentle lyricism that beautifully illuminates the emotional texture of Joseph’s inner life. The result is a book which warmly envelops readers within its pages with such subtlety and skill they will likely feel nostalgic for a world they’ve never known.

It would be understandable if, upon reading this review, you thought, “Sounds nice, but somehow a story about a 43-year-old farmer in 1956 just doesn’t seem too resonant to me, a college student.” Fair enough. But as Joseph ponders his life up until this point and struggles with the implications of future choices, the book taps into themes of how life should be lived and to what purpose, even with all its inevitable messiness and compromise. In that sense, it’s a book about a middle-aged person who a young person can read as a primer for what’s to come, and perhaps (though I can’t quite imagine this was Harrison’s intent, as he thankfully is far from a didactic writer) as a parable about living more consciously, with greater awareness of one’s yearnings and desires and the attendant courage to follow them before it’s too late. And maybe, so long as the courage is present, it’s never too late. Of course, these are themes literature has explored many times before, but rarely with the grace and conviction found here.

Who knows, perhaps if the book resonates with you, you will find yourself joining Harrison’s loyal group of readers. He may be an underappreciated gem, but a gem nonetheless.

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book reviewer.

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