Vagabond book reviews

Just Before Dark

by Jim Harrison

  • Mariner Books, 1991
  • ISBN: 978-0618001934
Just Before Dark cover

We drove south along Route 285, through an obstacle course of tumbleweeds and dust devils, and by cafes with hand-painted signs boasting green chile hot enough to keep Satan in Hell. My friend Paolo reached into the back seat of the Subaru and pulled out Jim Harrison’s Just Before Dark as I turned left at the sign for Texas. I glanced over at the book in his lap; there was a soiled Goodwill sticker pasted down its frayed spine. Paolo lifted the front cover, and the volume flopped open to the essay, “Going Places.”

Late dusk obscured the endless desert, so he clicked on a flashlight to read aloud then Paolo paused as we drove into the inky shadow of a freight train, and allowed its mechanical groan to cut through the quiet darkness. We were twenty-two, so the future was hopeful yet hazy. I felt the impulse to go places, but wanted there to be meaning in my itinerancy.

Two years later, I set out on another road trip with a different friend. I tossed Just Before Dark on the dashboard, and Angie and I rolled down the gravel driveway. I read “Going Places” aloud as she drove west toward a drooping sun and its orange glow. “Remember that habit is a form of gravity that strangulates,” Harrison reassured us.

Indeed, Harrison’s rules for living accompanied me across 4,000 miles of America, as if the author himself rode along in the back seat. Angie and I wound our way across the flat desert of Arizona, along the empty roads of Nevada, up the craggy coast of Northern California, and through national parks full of meandering millennials and baby boomers on the RV circuit. And every night, I brought the increasingly tattered volume into the tent and read aloud. During the day, I flipped to a new essay as we ate lunch on the hood of the car, stretched out on the chipped silver paint of my Civic. Angie and I congratulated ourselves on matching Harrison’s relentless respect for food (particularly in professional quantities), as we guzzled Capri Suns and unloaded coolers full of snacks. Harrison’s reverence for eating and awe for remote places added depth and definition to our journey.

Out of a hundred drivers the great majority find cars pleasant enough, and some will be obsessed with them in mechanical terms, but two or three out of the hundred will be obsessed with going places, pure and simple, for the sake of movement, anywhere and practically anytime.

- Just Before Dark

A year later, I was still obsessed with going places. I took a contract job at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, for which I would support science by learning the fine art of changing urinal filters and mopping floors. Of course, Just Before Dark accompanied me. Between the plates of mysterious cafeteria cuisine and my unfathomable remoteness, Harrison’s instruction to “Leave your reason, your logic at home” had never felt more relevant. This advice proved true: perched on that tiny volcanic island off the coast of the frozen continent, I fell in love. Chris and I looked out the drab brown dorm windows to the howling wind tearing snow currents across the vacant white plane, and laughed at our illogical circumstance. We had mirrored Harrison’s preference for impossibly cold, unappealing places, and chased a shadowy illusion to the bottom of the world where we found not solitude, but each other.

Perhaps it is Harrison’s inclination for solitude that makes this collection appeal to the literary man’s man, if there is such a thing. At first glance, it may read like a survivalist manual, filled with endless drives down dusty two-tracks, and thick descriptions of chasing quail. But it is while negotiating his rural heritage that Harrison locates an inextricable relationship between poetry and grouse hunting. Indeed, he is a ruralist who has paid his dues to Hollywood, a food snob who is impressed by a twice fried Midwestern buffet, a savant who finds significance in Minnesota culverts. He avoids sentimentality by embracing the gravity of craziness.

I have come to collect copies of Just Before Dark from dusty piles at garage sales and off rusted carts in basement bookstores. I give them away to friends suffering from the malaise of modernity. If you seek transformation, but find self-help shelves aggressively wholesome, read an essay of this profound book; its advice is as profane as it is sacred. I find it’s best to keep a page of Harrison’s strange honesty tucked in my back pocket at all times, in case of emergency.

– Rachel Miller Howard

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