Just Before Dark

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Born and raised in the Midwest, Jim Harrison is familiar with every facet of small-town, rural life, and he writes about it sympathetically, but not blindly. Throughout these articles, he urges a balanced, honest attitude toward the earth, ourselves, and each other. He decries the ugliness in much of sport’s wasteful butchery of wildlife at the same time that he denounces the hypocrisy of a government that condones society’s rape of nature and America’s indigenous cultures. Likewise, he makes fun of dimwitted machismo and literary snobbishness, both equally alienating.

Alienation is a major theme even in the first two sections, “Food” and “Travel and Sport,” where Harrison demonstrates a lively new-journalism style. Covering everything from trout fishing in America to bar pool in Ecuador and a stag hunt in France with a gruff, amused bluntness, he writes with an acute sense of his own clownishness as well as the destructive vanity of human behavior. His immoderate, often comic obsession with food and his personal frailties bespeaks a depressed detachment from experience that he addresses openly in the third section, “Literary Matters.”

Throughout these essays, Harris grapples with the irreconcilable drives of his nature. More than anything else, he admires the humility, moderation, and spontaneity of Zen masters who have transcended selfhood. Harris, however, struggles vainly to control his appetites, and as a writer, he remains self-conscious and detached from experience.

Consequently, he often comes across as a confused, tormented man, but there are definite signs of growth between 1965 and 1991, the years spanned by this collection. By the end, he has learned to live with himself and his demons, not only accepting the division of his life between desk and woods, but drawing creative energy from the interaction of these two sides of his restless self.