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Off to the Side: A Memoir Paperback – August 8, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

"I'm not sure I'm particularly well equipped to tell the truth," writes Harrison. But with such a colorful life, there's not much need to tell lies. Bus boy, gardener, gourmand, novelist, screenwriter, drunkard-Harrison has done it all. Now add successful memoirist to that list. After a rugged outdoor childhood in Michigan, where an accident left him blind in one eye, Harrison moved to New York with vague ambitions to be a poet. Denise Levertov soon recognized his talent and launched Harrison on a literary career that eventually included teaching at SUNY Stony Brook, writing for GQ and Esquire, authoring several popular novels (The Road Home; Legends of the Fall) and writing Hollywood screenplays. Throughout, Harrison befriended an impressive gang of fellow free spirits: Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Buffett, Tom McGuane, among others. He swingingly recounts trout fishing with Richard Brautigan, bingeing with Orson Welles, arguing gay poetry with W.H. Auden and drinking with just about everybody. Alcoholism, Harrison writes, was his constant enemy, the writer's "black lung disease," as his friend McGuane once said. But he had other vices, too: strippers, cocaine, hunting, long walks in the woods by himself-all of which fed into Harrison's characteristic mix of freewheeling boho sensibilities and earthy western melancholy. A man as willing to shoot a grouse as trip on psychedelics-he claims to annually experience God-like visions and swears that he was once transformed into a wolf-Harrison is never less than intriguing. This fine memoir is a worthy capstone to a fascinating career.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Trade Paper Edition edition (August 8, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802140300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802140302
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Michael Moore VINE VOICE on November 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I started reading Jim Harrison in the seventies. I even liked the early books he doesn't. I read his poetry and kept track of his work up through Off to the Side. I subscribe to Esquire and Men's Journal so I read many of the "Raw and the Cooked" pieces and saw early printings of various novellas. (I read "Legends" in Esquire in one sitting at my kitchen table. Hey, I was born poor too) This is some context for my remarks. Who does one write a memoir for? I guess my hope is that a memoir by an author is for his readers. If you are hoping for this, you'll be disappointed. It seems this memoir was for Harrison and probably his family and a few close friends listed toward the end. As for people who have been reading his work, maybe we're just better off reading his work. When a writer writes a memoir, I am interested in understanding what he/she reads and how he/she reads. Harrison mentions a number of writers but he doesn't say much about what he got from them (except near the end when he reveals a bit of what Notes From the Underground meant for him). I am interested in how events shaped writing and thinking. What we get are anecdotes. Harrison knew many writers who I like to read but we learn nothing of interest through his encounters. Ultimately, this memoir seems to me self absorbed. As if it were time to do the "memoir" thing. I guess I was naïve enough to think that writers consider their readers, but I don't think Harrison knows anything about his readers except as schmucks who go to his book signings that he was trying mightily to get out of. (I've never been to a book signing.) Is Off to the Side entertaining? Yes. Is it well written in Harrison's distinctive voice? Yes. Did Harrison have a life interesting enough to write about? Yes.Read more ›
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Logan Rand on January 14, 2004
Format: Paperback
When I finished this book, I felt much like the other reviewers. I thought the first half was great, and it finished strong in the very end, but my perception of Harrison was tarnished as one Hollywood name after another was trotted out during the screenplay writing phase. It was as if, caught within a pseudo-fame, he had to ensure his readers (or moreso himself) that he was in the game, whether we knew it or not.

Then, as the book settled in a bit, I began to realize that this was probably a relatively candid look at the man's professional life (I don't know him - I'm only guessing). True to his persona, he didn't fall into politically correct pressure - this time by not being modest about who he knows. Maybe this reveals just another one of his addicitons. The only difference is that the other addictions he talks about have a mythological romance to them, evoking endearment in job-shackled readers and probably selling a lot of books for him. This particular vice repels people.

Nevertheless, whether he intended it or not, I felt the book revealed a man constantly torn between the seduction of Hollywood's powerful, fast pace and his cheap cars and favorite dogs rolling out to a fishing spot before hitting the local northern Michigan watering hole. I can relate.

His language is, as always, poetically beautiful and you can truly feel the passion of somebody who seems fascinated by the simple fact that he's alive.

Out of morbid curiosity, I would have liked to understand more how he maintained his family life with so much wild and carefree excess. But, then again, that's really none of my business.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By The Sanity Inspector on May 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It's one of the most uniquely American career paths in literature. Boy grows up in the hinterland, discovers that he has received the divine ray of talent, follows his dreams and scrabbles for decades, then finally hits the big time in Hollywood.
The difference is that Harrison never lost touch with the land, much preferring to repair to his favorite hunting and fishing spots, and drink with the locals back home in Michigan, rather than toil away in the studios. Oh, he did lose his church unbringing, and G. K. Chesterton would surely call Harrison's idea of a private religion mere weakmindedness, but Harrison has undoubtedly consumed an adult portion of life, and he's here to tell us all about it.
As a biographical account of his life and career, this is much too misty. The reader must swim open seas of random impressions, interesting anecdotes, and barstool wisdom to get from one fact to the next. And they are not especially sequential, either. I guess that job will have to wait for a professional biographer.
But taken for what it is, this book is enjoyable. There's too much name-dropping in the Hollywood phase, though he is sincerely grateful to Jack Nicholson for his help breaking into pictures. But really--eating sandwiches with Art Garfunkel while betting on which skiers on a slope are going to wipe out? And there are dozens such little passing mentions. Maybe I'm just jealous...
His love of the land, of the countryside, of his hunting dogs, and his unsparing accounts of his own shortcomings and addictions and mistakes make this book one to respect. It may be a mishmash, it may not be the whole or unadulterated truth, but it is visibly a labor of love.
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