Off to the Side: A Memoir

Off to the Side: A Memoir



Selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Off to the Side is the tale of one of America’s most beloved writers. Jim Harrison traces his upbringing in Michigan amid the austerities of the Depression and the Second World War, and the seemingly greater austerities of his starchy Swedish forebears. He chronicles his coming-of-age, from a boy drunk with books to a young man making his way among fellow writers he deeply admires — including Peter Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Harrison discusses forthrightly the life-changing experience of becoming a father, and the minor cognitive dissonance that ensued when this boy from the “heartland” somehow ended up a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter. He gives free rein to his “seven obsessions” — alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing (and the dogs who have accompanied him in both), religion, the road, and our place in the natural world — which he elucidates with earthy wisdom and an elegant sense of connectedness. Off to the Side is a work of great beauty and importance, a triumphant achievement that captures the writing life and brings all of us clues for living.

Rarely does one encounter a memoir so filled with the details of a life lived. Whether recalling bits of his past as a depressed child, manual laborer, Hollywood screenwriter, aspiring poet, novelist, or alcoholic husband, Jim Harrison pauses to analyze these moments–the cause and effect–and the choices that have made him who he is. Loosely divided into chapters, Off to the Side is somewhat rambling, and Harrison’s opinions and conclusions occasionally remain obscure (“nearly everything you hear about Mexicans in the great north is utterly untrue”)–but, to the benefit of readers, Harrison is never at a loss for ideas.

The solace Harrison finds in the natural world is most compelling, and it could be said he, too, shares Frost’s “lover’s quarrel with the world.” After losing an eye at an early age and sinking into melancholy, Harrison’s father advised that “curiosity will get you through hard times when nothing else will. Your curiosity had to be strong enough to lift you out of your self-sunken mudbath, the violent mixture of hormones, injuries, melancholy, and dreams of a future you not only couldn’t touch but could scarcely see.” These words were not lost on Harrison. With “no expertise outside of [his] own imagination” Harrison plays to his strengths in Off to the Side by setting down the events, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that have shaped his quite literate, truly American life. –Michael Ferch

Selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Off to the Side is the tale of one of America’s most beloved writers. Jim Harrison traces his upbringing in Michigan amid the austerities of the Depression and the Second World War, and the seemingly greater austerities of his starchy Swedish forebears. He chronicles his coming-of-age, from a boy drunk with books to a young man making his way among fellow writers he deeply admires — including Peter Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Harrison discusses forthrightly the life-changing experience of becoming a father, and the minor cognitive dissonance that ensued when this boy from the “heartland” somehow ended up a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter. He gives free rein to his “seven obsessions” — alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing (and the dogs who have accompanied him in both), religion, the road, and our place in the natural world — which he elucidates with earthy wisdom and an elegant sense of connectedness. Off to the Side is a work of great beauty and importance, a triumphant achievement that captures the writing life and brings all of us clues for living.



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