The Great Leader ~ Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison’s eminently readable novel opens with a Detective Sunderson walking backwards in winter along the shores of Lake Superior in the UP of Michigan . That’s Upper Peninsula for us flatlanders, The detective is walking backwards to keep the wind-blown sand out of his eyes. But its fitting, since much of the novel will be spent with periodic flashes of insight as he looks backwards over his life. In retirement, Detective Sunderson becomes a great “napper” (I’ve never seen so many naps in one novel!). He’s also a ‘functioning alcoholic’ which contributes to the nature of his fitful sleep. It’s these naps, with their swirling realities that are the window back to his memories of things past, his attempts at understanding his life’s path.

The detective, one of four siblings and now divorced for three years, is five days away from his retirement and has been trying to wrap up a case against a cult leader – a suspected child sex offender. Going by many aliases, the current one Dwight, his quarry is generally referred to as The Great Leader. Back at Sunderson’s desk we are introduced to two of the great pleasures of Harrison’s novel right away, as S sits down to jot some notes. Throughout the novel S makes lists and notes. Random thoughts on his life, some on the case at hand, and many of a literary nature. Most prodigious readers love characters like this. Sunderland’s reading tends to be slanted toward academic history, his Michigan State major and life long obsession. Unfortunately, history as a profession would have interfered with his other life king obsession – brook trout fishing. So one day he impulsively stopped in at the State Police headquarters, and his “career” was born. Not that the subject of crime and law enforcement held much interest for him – especially in his reading life. He’s of a like mind with Hannah Arendt, whose phrase “the banality of evil” he quite likes.

S tells us that he has “no interest in fiction sensing that his room full of historical texts were fiction enough” – a take on historical texts that I’ve always believed to be the case. Sunderson does branch out some though when he picks up a copy of – not surprisingly – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. 

His first list is typical. There are two observations on the cult he is investigating, one general observation on cults (“Historically America has always been full of cults, why?”) and one note that simply says “I have to find a lady to clean this fucking house top to bottom”. Though a serious subject (cults and sex abuse) Harrison is adept at mixing in humor – both laugh out loud and quietly sardonic – to the mix. Talking about his strictly scheduled liaisons with Roxie, a secretary that he shares in his office, he admits that he doesn’t

care for one of her favorite sexual positions which was to sit nude on his clothes dryer turned to “cotton sturdy high” to feel the warm vibrations.

The case won’t be wrapped up before his retirement but he still wants to pursue it. (I’m fascinated with the similarities to the AMC series “The Killing” in this and other ways). Roxie had always been his resource and researcher on the computer. Now that he won’t have access to her services (at least her computer services), he needs someoene….and here enters the precocious sixteen year old across the street, who runs rings around Roxie with her computer hacking and research skills. Mona is from a broken home, although she “lives” with her mother. Since her mother is nearly always traveling, she’s left on her own. S and his ex-wife Diane have looked after her forever, and for her part Mona thinks of them as her “real” mother and  father. Which is not to say that Mona is not averse to a little exhibitionism when she knows that S is “peeping” at her from across the street through an elaborate bookshelf set-up in front of one of his windows. Will some find this controversial? Probably. But it never leads to anything. For Mona it’s part of a game that allows her to get closer to her “dad”. For S, it’s the source of much of his musings about philosophy, biology and sexuality.

To peek or not to peek, that was the question. It was eleven minutes to zero hour when Mona’s lights would come on. Was he so fatigued by a bad night that he lacked moral resolve? Probably. This was a wan attempt to recapture the melancholic, philosophical mood he used to feel reading Kierkegaard in college. Of course, even then he would have dropped “Either/Or” like a hot skillet if a nude girl had appeared before his window. Biology defeats philosophy in the first round. What was this stomach-souring anguish of sex? Even wise Socrates tripped over his pecker.

Mona is a great character, if not completely believable. Her evolving relationship with Sunderson is another pleasure of the novel as she reverts back to age appropriate behavior and he works out his issues. Mona reclaims her childhood and Sunderson becomes “a boy again by camping”. One of Sunderson’s issues is coming to terms with his failed marriage which he takes all responsibility for. He understands that marriage and the particular profession that he had seldom went together. Although he still loves his wife, and they have a good relationship, he knows there’s no going back. Diane summed it up perfectly at one point when she told him that “Your profession is to find out what is wrong and you’ve done it so long you can no longer see what is right about life.” S really has no dispute with this assessment.

Mona does most of the valuable “police” work as Sunderson keeps working the case even after his retirement. On a preliminary approach to the cults encampment he is literally stoned in the biblical sense, and winds up  in the hospital for several weeks. He gets mixed up with the sister of a dangerous drug lord, a private detective whose loyalties he suspects, one of the long time members of the cult “(his general disgust for her didn’t seem to include his dick, which was an independent compass”), has several short relationships with waitresses and assorted lonely women as he travels around keeping tabs on the ever evolving cult and its mercurial leader who has moved from The Great Leader to King David.

At one point Harrison works in that Detective Sunderson is often mistaken for Robert Duvall, whom S calls his doppelgänger. Readers love these clues to the appearance of the main characters in novels they are reading.  – often casting the what if movie as they read. Harrison has made the call easy for us.

Part of giving us characters that are real and memorable, is in relating clues about their personalities that readers can likely relate to. Reading and listening to music? Readers are separated into two groups: those who do and those who don’t. S tells us that “Diane liked to listen to Leonard Cohen while reading her favorite author Loren Eiseley. He liked both but not at the same time.” Stones vs Beatles?: “He had always preferred the edgy Rolling Stones to the frivolous white canticles of the Beatles” Right on. He even has S admit that he’s a book smeller. That’s right. I admit that when I was younger the first hing I would do before cracking a new book was to get a good whiff. Good to see I’m not alone here in this fetish (though since I’m more and more digital there is a move away from books as sensory objects (feel and smell). S notes an anecdote about Goethe who had fallen in love with an eighteen year old in the twilight of his years. Gratifying to S that “there was evidence here that great writers could be the same variety of dickheads as ex-detectives”. As part of his healing, S feels he needs “a break from history which after all tended to be a record of national bad habits”. So he picks up a book of essays by Gary Snyder. Harrison of course is great friends with Snyder, and has co-written with him The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild.

In many ways, this a back-to-nature novel. S has become jaded throughout the years with his police work. It’s obvious with his pronouncements over and over about the condition and worthiness of the human race,

…strictly speaking the entire population of the United States should be imprisoned but then who would take care of the innocent children? Law enforcement was merely the manhole cover on the human sewer,

or,

The question was why not destroy the Great Leader who so grotesquely diminished what everyone must sense however remotely, as the divinity of existence. To be sure, Sunderson only felt this in the natural world distant from the collective human puke that drowned so much of what was good in life.

As the novel moves toward conclusion (and its anti-climactic ending), the emphasis has shifted to the healing of Sunderson. The healing a result of his increasingly long stints outside, a communion with nature.

…he liked the idea of investigating the nature of nature excluding the human species and its charnel-house history. Enough is enough.

To be published by Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

10/4/2011

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