Reading Wolf: A False Memoir by Jim Harrison

I recently read Jim Harrison’s first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir. Had tried to read it a couple of times before but this time finished it. Well worth reading. Harrison’s writing is not finely polished chiseled prose but it is always alive and kicking. In Wolf, which in an interview Harrison said was 94% true, a thirty year old man is camping in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hoping to see a wolf and remembering his life up to this point. The novel alternates between scenes of the narrator in the woods, dealing with rain and wildlife, with where he wants to explore, and scenes of his past life, growing up in Michigan on farms and with his county agent outdoorsman father, and also the times when he has run away from this life to live in other places, especially Boston and New York City. There is an axis of some kind, it seems, within this man, pulling him back and forth between Michigan and the East coast. This corresponds to the axis within him, between his animal self and his spiritual self. This reminds me of a story I read about a man who was studying with the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh for a while, and this man was busily looking for a certain spoon in the kitchen when Hanh walked in and watched him frantically searching for the spoon. Finally Hanh asked him what he was looking for and the man said, “The spoon!” And Hanh said, “I think you are looking for yourself.”

That is what Swann, the narrator is doing, perhaps only realizing it at the end when he decides where he will live, Michigan or the East coast. There were parts of this book that made me squirm, especially the way Swann treats the women in his life; but you have to say he has the virtue of honesty in that he reveals this without excusing himself. Here is the first few lines of the book to give a taste of it:

“When the dog barks or growls her warning in the night I question whether it will be a stray cat, a skunk, a killer or a ghost. It occurred to me the other morning that people don’t talk about death because even to the simplest of them death isn’t very interesting. Of course this all changes when it draws near to the particular individual but until then death has the probability, the actuality of our moon shot to a zebra. There must be reasons why I seem to closet funerals and weddings and love affairs together: mortal accidents, simply the given on which a shabby structure may be subtracted or added.”

Jim Harrison’s work has been an acquired taste for me. People have told me I would like his books but I wasn’t ever able to finish one until I read his memoir, Off to the Side. Since then I’ve read his poetry collection, The Shape of the Journey, and his novels, Sundog and The English Major, and parts of his non-fiction collection, Just Before Dark.


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