Battle of the Bards: Harrison and McGuane
Two things Michiganders don’t have to look far beyond their borders for are good beer and good writers (and may they remain forever twained). Today we take a look at the prose styles of two titans of the game: Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison. As people, they have a lot in common. Both originally hail from Michigan, both are novelists of the very first order, and both did stints as Hollywood screenwriters. And they’ve fished together enough to appear in each others’ writing. But when we put their prose under a microscope and examine the ways they use language to make meaning, striking differences start to appear. Let’s first take a look at Harrison’s “Night Games,” a short essay that originally appeared in Esquire magazine.
I stood one night in the Bechler Meadows in the southwest section of Yellowstone Park. There were no people for miles and in the moonlight I heard thousands of migrating herons calling. I had a bad toothache, the best toothache I ever had. My friends were asleep and despite a mixture of codeine and whiskey sleep escaped me. I tried to fish on a branch of the Bechler River but my attention was overwhelmed by the sheen of thousands of acres of marsh grass in the moonlight, my throbbing jaw, the noise of the herons and the imaginary grizzlies. I was a night creature as surely as I was a few years later in a boat with a broken-down motor out in Lake Okeechobee. There is a very particular “I don’t care” abandonment mixed with a rising of hairs on the neck that Matthew Arnold described as the test of good poetry. This contrasts with dipping smelt off creeks emptying into Lake Michigan with mobs of other mostly drunk men filling tubs with the small fish we sometimes cook without cleaning. The coldness of the water makes you think of night fishing off Little Torch Key in Florida. You stand in the water which seems to approximate body temperature, feeling on your bare legs the subtle pull of tide. The fish cast phosphorescent wakes. You are a pure sense mechanism with the easy arc of your fly line repeated so often that it has entered the realm of the instinctive. You are so far “out of mind” that you are rather surprised, and not necessarily pleasantly, when you return. But that’s what sport is supposed to do, and night fishing is a sport with an umbilical connection called play that colors all your movements. The boy catching bass at night to the man repeating the gesture three decades later is an inexhaustibly sensible step through time.
The thing that stands out most starkly is just how non-linear Harrison’s thoughts are. Time and space both collapse and conflate in this paragraph as we hop-scotch from Yellowstone to Lake Okeechobee to Key West. Not less do we time-travel. After jumping forward in time to Okeechobee, the reader is left in the dark as to exactly when the smelting and Little Torch moments occurred—left in the dark because time doesn’t really matter. The events do. Language’s subordination of time comes across most poignantly in that final, haunting line where Harrison casts his squinty-eyed but nonetheless clarion gaze across three decades in a single swoop. “Inexhaustibly sensible steps through time” could serve as a canny summary of Harrison’s literary gestalt.
It’s also worth noting the pure strangeness of Harrion’s language at times. It’s a poet’s weirdness: a surprise of words suggestive of a slightly slanted worldview. Take, for instance, the following sentence: “I had a bad toothache, the best toothache I ever had.” This moment of unusual logic gives the conventionally logical reader happy pause–here is an idea to unpack. Indeed, when we open the suitcase of that sentence, out springs a world where the value of a thing comes not from whether it harms or helps us but by how closely it hews to its own ideal form. A toothache is supposed to hurt: therefore an excruciating toothache that keeps one up all night on a grab-bag of pain killers is a toothache of the most excellent order.
All in all, Harrison represents a supremely visceral writer, someone who thinks and writes with his whole body. To read Harrison is to wade through a deep pool of bodily ecstasies and ailments: in every passage there’s at least one passing reference to a Hurt, a Hunger, a Lust or a Thirst. Looking to better understand where his writing came from, it wouldn’t do for the literary scientists of the future to study Harrison’s brain alone—they’d have to plumb his belly and bowels as well.
A very different writer emerges in Tom McGuane. The following paragraphs come from “Tarpon Hunting.”
I strike him too quickly and feel little more than a bump as the fly comes free. The tarpon muscles about in confusion, making a depth charge of disturbance when he sees the boat, and turns over on himself clearing out. We should be fighting that fish now, one reflects gloomily. Yes, one is included to admit, one has blown off a good fish.
To seize the rod with a pontifical sigh and hand me the push pole would be Guy’s every right, but he remains in the bow, camera around his neck, ready to record each new faux pas.
I return to my post in the stern with that special determination that surely prepares the angler for more garish errors than those which produced the determination. This is the vicious circle of angling, the iron maiden of a supposedly reflective pursuit.
We pole for a good long time without sighting another fish. We are beginning to lose our tide here, and the time has come to think of another move. We sit down in the skiff, drifting under the dome of marine sky. Guy hands me a sandwich and we have our lunch, chewing and ruminating like cattle. We are comfortable enough together that we can fall silent for long periods of time. A flats skiff is a confined place and one in which potentials for irritation are brought to bear as surely as in an arctic cabin, but this comfort of solitude enhanced by companionship is the rarest commodity of angling. Pure solitude, nearly its equal, is rather more available.
This sequence, like the Harrison passage, arrives at a moment of profundity, but it does so via a set of much different machinations. McGuane, for one, respects the integrity of the time-space continuum. His world is linear, a narrative realm in many ways more familiar than Harrison’s charged poetic cosmos. There is more of a system to McGuane’s prose, too—a moving back and forth between revelation and commentary, between narrative and reflection, even within the same sentence: “I return to my post in the stern with that special determination that surely prepares the angler for more garish errors than those which produced the determination.” Whereas Harrison gives us pause with his strangeness, McGuane stops us with his subtle acrobatics, the kind of wordplay that requires—and rewards—rereading.
While there’s a deep sensuousness to Harrison’s prose, McGuane’s writing is cerebral, even ticklishly so—a single CDC fiber brushing the brain. I read it with a happy smirk on my face that ebbs and flows but never wanes. This comes partly from the fact that McGuane always makes us aware of the act of writing, gives us a wink, jabs us in the ribs. Explicitly, this involves word choices that tip his hand—that word “rather” in the final sentence. Implicitly, it takes the form of a deliberateness of pacing, of a meticulous measured in the cadence of his sentences—all evidence of a controlled and disciplined mind at work.
In the end, I find myself wondering how these different literary sensibilities manifest themselves during the act of fishing. Does one make for a better angler? Or maybe just a different angler? Having not fished with either (not that I wouldn’t welcome an invitation…), I can only speculate.
What about you? Who would you rather fish with? The primal poet or the systematic storyteller? The one who jousts or the one who jests?