This is vintage Harrison, but some of it in the sense of simply "old," rather than good. Oh, they're not really bad, because they all contain that strange mix of machismo, arrogance, and self-deprecating humor we've learned to expect from Harrison. But these essays, dating from the 70s and 80s are, many of them, from his still-struggling-to-make-it days, when he was forced out of necessity to write magazine pieces for quick cash. There are, however, some gems scattered here and there amongst the gravel. Harrison fans will very likely differ on which pieces here are the best ones, depending on where they are "coming from," both in a literary sense and a geographic one. Since I come from Reed City, where Jim spent his own formative years, I tend to enjoy most those essays in which he remembers those rural Michigan times - "The Violators," "Night Walking," "The Last Good Country," and, my personal favorite, "A Memoir of Horse Pulling," in which Harrison remembers watching those mighty heavyweight mammals - Belgians and Percherons - who were once the main attraction at county fairs all around Michigan and the Midwest, back when his dad was agricultural agent based here in Reed City. There is also the crazed, Jabberwocky fun he has in "A Chat with a Novelist," in which he "interviews" his old Michigan State college chum, Tom McGuane. And there are some concise and interesting reviews of books too, by John D. MacDonald, Peter Matthiesen, Farley Mowat, and even Ernest Hemingway.
Just Before Dark is, admittedly, an uneven sort of collection, but if you take it in small doses (I suggest you keep it in the "powder room") it can be quite palatable. I'm happy I read it, if only for the already mentioned favorites. In the intervening years since these pieces were written, Jim Harrison has become much more than just a Michigan writer. He is on his way to becoming a permanent fixture in American literature. - Tim Bazzett, author of SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA