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Jim Harrison's Quixotic, Erotic Road Novel

The road novel, which has a history going back to Renaissance Spain, is a literary voyage of adventure and discovery featuring — more often than not — a young male protagonist. But Jim Harrison's new novel, The English Major, sets out to change that.

Harrison's main character is Cliff, a 60-something former English teacher-turned-farmer who, after being dumped by his rowdy wife Vivian, revs up his old brown Taurus and hits the road. Told in an utterly believable — if somewhat flat-footed — first-person voice, the story follows Cliff's attempt to shed his former life by crossing the borders of as many states as he can reach in a year.

This is a Jim Harrison novel, so it doesn't take long for this quixotic Michigander to hook up with his very own Sancho Panza. In this modern version of Cervantes' reliable dynamic duo, the sidekick is a horny, middle-aged former student of Cliff's named Marybelle. She gets out of her homemaker's rut by rutting with Cliff in a number of far Midwestern states.

From Michigan to California, Cliff enjoys the landscape, fishes in good rivers, wrestles with his own libido (and Marybelle's) and makes it his project to toss away pieces of a geographical U.S. puzzle as he crosses the border into each new state. Maybe he can change his life; maybe he'll rewrite the U.S. map and give proper Indian names to all the states.

When he arrives in California, Cliff reaches out to his only child, a gay movie producer living in San Francisco, and puts together the puzzle of his evolving personality. And — in a move very important to old guys — he gets a new car.

It's never too early to put aside a great Father's Day gift. Wives and daughters of America: For your reading Papa, this ribald, questing, utterly charming and Zen-serious novel about being male, 60 and (well, almost) alone, is the book of the year. Guys, if you can't wait to get going, you ought to just plunk down your $24 right away and follow Cliff's trail.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.