Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

Available from Amazon

I have to be careful here. See, Jim Harrison is something of a hero of mine, and I approach each new book of his with a certain reverence.

Harrison is what people call "a writer's writer," being more respected than famous, although he's also enjoyed the kind of commercial success that few writers ever achieve. Besides having doggedly (and almost single-handedly) kept the novella form alive in American letters with collections such as The Woman Lit By Fireflies and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, he's also an accomplished essayist and poet. He's even "gone Hollywood" at times, being responsible in one way or another for Legends of the Fall, Revenge, Cold Feet, and that grandiose & star-crossed mess, Wolf.

A Writer's Writer
Now comes The Great Leader: a faux mystery, a novel which I'm happy to report is strong & entertaining, if a bit shaggy & idiosyncratic.

Ostensibly, this novel is about Sunderson, a recently-divorced, about-to-retire detective with the Michigan State Police whose working one last case, trying put away an elusive, pedophiliac cult leader. Harrison has subtitled the book a "faux mystery" because it has all the trappings of a crime novel, but these trappings are a bit of red herring. Sunderson's real investigation is in a deeper and more personal vein. He's a man trying to figure out who the hell he is, amidst other rambling musings, like the nexus of "sex, religion, and money."

Thus, the narrative, whose viewpoint is almost entirely from inside Sunderson's head, is ruminative and recursive, occasionally yielding pithy gems such as "it was up to each generation to be duped into lassitude by their own music." Sunderson, who is an avid brook trout fisherman and reader of history, is in constant conversation with himself, as each new incident in his life recalls past episodes, which bubble up from Sunderson's memory, often baffling him.

You'd think that a man of Sunderson's age & experience would be more sure of himself. But, no, Sunderson is essentially a dithering mess. "Life moment by moment is so unforgiving and I'm a slow study," he tells himself at one point. His divorce has blindsided him, and his retirement has further unmoored him. To make matters worse, the paternal bond he has forged with Mona, the teenager next door, is constantly sullied by his lecherous libido, something she disconcertingly encourages.

I should note that the superficial similarities of this book to Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo strike me as more than coincidental. Both books feature an older man hunting down a perpetrator who victimizes young girls, as well as a plucky young female hacker with, shall we say, a "non-normative" sexuality. But, where Larsson's book is a straightforward crime novel, Harrison's book is an altogether different organism. Indeed, I'd be willing to believe that Harrison wrote The Great Leader: a faux mystery as a kind of corrective response to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but what the hell do I know? The workings of Harrison's inspiration & talent are beyond me.

Of course, The Great Leader: a faux mystery isn't just a catalog of the abashed musings of a retiree. It's also a rollicking picaresque, offering more than its share of violence, sex, and wry absurdity. Its achievement is that Sunderson comes off as a flawed but fully-realized human being. What's more, since the novel is by Jim Harrison, it also features some breathtaking natural vistas, rendered beautifully by a true master of the word.

In any case, Sunderson intermittently chases and retreats from his prey as he deals with the complications of his own changing circumstances, which include a hilariously lewd spectacle at his retirement party and a primitively violent ambush out west. We follow our erstwhile detective from the lush Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the bewilderingly alien deserts of Arizona and back in a haphazard investigation that finally comes to a brilliant, blackly-comic conclusion that throws all of Sunderson's efforts into sharp relief. It's a conclusion that's perfectly of-a-piece with Sunderson's own judgments about the larger issues of life. Still, a kind of rough justice is served, so that even the most morally-rigid of readers (who would probably never finish this book anyway) would be satisfied.

But it's not the destination of this novel that offers its best rewards. Like life, it's the journey itself that enriches.

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