A Book I Wish More People Knew About Vol. 3
Christine Sneed on Jim Harrison
Christine Sneed is a writer of wonderful short stories and novels who I have been reading for a long time. Even better, she’s a native of the Chicago area, just like me. What I love about her work is its deep engagement with character, as her people try to figure out their own lives, whether it be a young woman in Paris, being kept by her lover as she tries to commit to being an artist (Paris, He Said), or an internationally famous actor (Little Known Facts).
Her collection of short stories The Virginity of Famous Men is filled with stories by turn wickedly funny and deeply emotional, sometimes all in the same piece. She herself is a writer who I wish more people knew about.
Her newest book, Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos is a quasi-epistolary romp through corporate America:
Christine also has a long career as an outstanding teacher of writing, and I knew that she would have a good candidate for this series.
I was 100% correct.
A Book I Wish More People Knew About: Christine Sneed on Jim Harrison’s The Woman Lit by Fireflies
It was 1993, year one of the Clinton Administration, but at that point in my life, I had only a dim awareness of the hornets’ nest of federal and state politics. I was 22, just out of college, my head filled with vague writerly aspirations, with Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy and Nabokov’s Lolita, which I was finally reading, often on the el train to and from my job in Chicago’s Loop. I worked as a secretary, a job title still used in that era with little irony or shame, my yearly salary $22,000, my monthly rent $750, split with a high school friend pursuing a degree in physical therapy at the University of Illinois–Chicago. Two years later she would finish her degree and move to the suburbs to live with the surgeon she married a year or so later, and I would leave for graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana.
For reasons I doubt either of us remember, my father gave me a copy of Jim Harrison’s 1988 novel Dalva. I imagine him handing it to me and saying gruffly that I could learn a thing or two about life and fiction-writing by reading it, which I did soon after, sometimes sitting in the conference room during my lunch hour at the company where I earned my so-called livelihood, closing the door before I began turning the pages and gnawing on the sandwich I’d brought from home, having made it the night before, prone as I was to playing beat-the-clock on weekday mornings.
Dalva, told with what I came to understand as Harrison’s characteristic wry humor and earnest emotionality, in alternating points of view, one the beautiful and suffer-no-fools titular character, the other a boozy, affable male academic, soon led me to more of his books, among them Wolf, Farmer, A Good Day To Die, Legends of the Fall, and eventually, The Woman Lit by Fireflies.
Rereading The Woman Lit by Fireflies recently, which is paired with two other novellas, Brown Dog and Sunset Limited, in the Washington Square Press edition I own, reminded me why I’ve been a steadfast admirer of Harrison’s work for nearly thirty years. So clear in these novellas is his outsize appetite for everything he loved—food, French wine, long walks with his dog in the woods near his writing cabin outside of Grayling, Michigan, a good joke, the Western desert, the Midwestern prairie. Harrison writes reverently of the natural world, of loneliness and sexual desire and the conundrum of existence—namely that it ends. He also wrote matter-of-factly and on occasion hilariously about sex (see Brown Dog), and his female protagonists are as memorable and well drawn as his male POV characters, those in The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Dalva perhaps his most notable.
The main character of The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Clare, a 49-year-old mother of two, has been a dutiful wife and homemaker up until the moment she jumps a fence at a rest area in Iowa while on a road trip with her husband Donald—a Wall Street-obsessed conservative—and leaves him to fend for himself—for good. Harrison quips, “Donald was a passably good man, or so everyone thought, a citizen so solid that, as a club jokester had said, he could throw a successful fund-raiser for a crack dealer.”
(Their son is named Donald Jr.—contemporary parallels are impossible not to draw—Harrison likely was thinking of Donald Trump when he named these characters—The Woman Lit by Fireflies was first published in July 1990 in The New Yorker, a few years after the publication of The Art of the Deal.)
The money in the marriage is Clare’s, and when she met Donald in college, he was an earnest liberal, his politics in line with hers, which defied her privileged background, although it wasn’t long before he was won over by the comforts of affluence and became a staunch WASP with a country club membership and anti-Semitic leanings.
A handful of months before Clare dumps him and spends the night in a cornfield—where she encounters the eponymous fireflies, she lost her closest friend Zilpha and her beloved dog Sammy, both to cancer. Her departure from Donald and their marriage had been a long time coming, however. Their daughter Laurel, who can’t stand her father, had been goading Clare for years about leaving him.
How Harrison resolves Clare’s flight from her marriage, and where she travels by the last sentence, is deeply poignant. I reread Jim Harrison because he reminds me of the pleasures of being alive, which today are not always so easily recalled. As Dr. Roth, Clare’s good friend and physician says, “[A]ll efforts of the glitz media to the contrary, life is Dickensian, and pathos is invariably the morning’s leading news item.”
In Harrison’s books, at least, that’s always true.
Virginity of Famous Men, and Paris, He Said. She is the editor of the short fiction anthology Love in the Time of Time’s Up, and her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, The Southern Review, New York Times, among other publications. She’s received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, and other honors. She teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s graduate creative writing programs.
Previously in “A Book I Wish More People Knew About”