Jim Harrison’s The English Major is a hilarious collection of road notes on serious matter, a diary of a 60-year old ex-farmer whose divorce deprived him of his unfaithful wife and his dearest farm at the same time. Not knowing what to do with his life and 100,000 dollars left from the farm sale, the narrator, Cliff, comes across a jigsaw puzzle from his childhood, forty-eight colored pieces, each one representing a state, which encourages him to drive across the country.
At first, Cliff intends to visit each state once and to bury a relevant puzzle piece in each of them. Somewhere along the road he comes up with a bigger plan, which is to rename the states and state birds, as he believes that most of them are not suitable. However, his creative work is challenged by variety of distractions, most of them female-related.
Coping with variety of sexual temptations, the narrator explores the country constantly addressing different events of American history, recalling “the civil rights nightmare” and the events of 9/11. Not limited to politics, the novel is also loaded with literary references, originating in the narrator’s English Major. Cliff often recalls favorite writers of his past and things they said, some of them quite perplexing, like the following one, “Birds are holes in heaven thorough which a man may pass,” nothing else but a sentence from a schizophrenic’s journal.
Cliff and other Harrison’s characters seem to address popular stereotypes about Americans. The narrator himself is a redneck, though an unusual one, a farmer with teaching background, who knows more about his cherry crops than about such “wonders” of technology as e-mail and cell phone. The latter bothers Cliff so much that he finally has to drown it in the toilet.
Another example is Cliff’s ex-wife, Vivian, who is a typical business woman, a successful real estate agent and a sad product of feminism movement, who forgot how to be a spouse and a mother, having her husband cook for her. Highly concerned with dieting and her oversized butt, which only enlarges fed by butterscotch schnapps and Oreo, Vivian soothes herself binging on Pepsi and powdered donuts, which causes her type two diabetes towards the end.
And finally, there is Marybelle, Cliff’s hungry-for-sex mistress, who has a husband, a grown-up daughter and a depression. She constantly imagines her own world, with her friends’ tragedies and an imaginary son sick with malaria or captured by guerillas somewhere in Africa, things that often happen to women who, unlike Vivian, have not fulfilled their career ambitions.
Introducing these close-minded stereotypes, Harrison’s humor makes his characters humane and worthy of compassion. Cliff’s journey is the discovery of each person, who learns about his or her country and its ideals and beliefs. Looking at the jigsaw puzzle, Cliff wonders why the states have their certain colors and who decided on that. Likewise, the stereotypes about people like Vivian, Marybelle and Cliff are nothing more but labels someone put on them subjectively.
The background for these stereotypical characters is the United States of America. The country and its culture are portrayed through Cliff’s knowledge and life experience. Several issues may be distinguished, food being one of them.
As a huge part of American culture, food is mentioned in every chapter of Harrison’s novel. Cliff scrupulously describes every meal he has, in details, as though his notes were a menu the reader can choose from. The protagonist also comments on the dishes he tries and explains why he likes or does not like them. In the meantime, he recalls his favorites, those he used to cook at home or those Vivian used to make for him and shares a couple of recipes.
This passion for food and scarcity of physical activity leads America towards obesity. Cliff notes fairly that when his wife spent more time working on the farm, she had no weight problems. With her skyrocketing career in real estate and incontrollable snacking, Vivian’s physical activity minimized, while her butt went on growing bigger. Cliff himself happily states that he may eat whatever he likes, as he sweats it off while cultivating the land.
The variety of Mexican food Cliffs meets in California recalls the immigration issue. During his journey, the protagonist comes across some places that look like a foreign territory. For instance, Chinatowns in different states, the areas where there are newspapers he cannot read and language he does not understand. Using the expression “with gusto,” Cliff unconsciously brings in the fact that many foreign words find their way and stay in the language as though they were always there.
With the development of technology, however, many immigrant workers are not needed; their job is now done by machines. This scares Cliff, a passionate farmer who “took a while” to figure out how his son’s “high-tech” coffeemaker works. He feels like he is the last real hippie, living close to nature, without the obsession for speed and money.
Being a farmer and the English major at the same time, Cliff is disturbed by the fact that while money is in great demand, education is losing its value. He himself will always be “‘high minded and low waged,’” as his father used to say. Education in America is now aimed to entertain, engage in learning rather than challenge. Students “do not have time” to read books, but they are sucked into computers and growing cell phone industry. Cliff feels it is all artificial. Not knowing how to use a computer, he cites and recalls James Joyce, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and Emily Dickinson and many others, only threads of whom are kept in his memory, worn out by thirty years of farm labor.
And still, An English major will always be an English major. People recognize that Cliff is one of them from the way he speaks.
Being sophisticated, Cliff is also very biological. He claims that sexual desire is the basis of any art, so he looks for a charming nude inspiration for his big project of renaming the states. All his past sexual fantasies come up at the time he has no wife to be faithful to. However, at 60, Cliff’s body lacks energy and several days of aggressive sex with Marybelle end up in physical pain, which encourages Cliff to run away until it is too late. The combination of such a sad process as agility and keen sense of humor, The English Major turns out to be a thoughtful and deep, while also an easy-to-digest novel.
Witty and entertaining, Harrison’s puzzle about America and Americans is a reading of two days and a pondering of a year. Keep this in mind if you decide to put it together and make sure you are ready for such a challenge.