The hero of Jim Harrison's novel has one foot in the present action of the story, and the other deeply rooted in the mind. Detective Sunderson is haunted by everything that went wrong with his wife, demons from his career and his lust for young women, all of it filtered through his interest in history.
- The Great LeaderJim HarrisonHardcover, Grove Press288 pages, $24.00
The story begins at the start of his retirement from the police force in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. His marriage fell apart three years earlier for the usual, grizzled-cop reason that he couldn't help but bring the drama of his work home with him. He lusts after the teenage girl next door and, indeed, many women. This is the striking thing about Harrison's protagonist: He has a definitive personality. He drinks too much and has ugly compulsions and emotions. The book tends to measure the mental health of its protagonist by how many nightcaps he goes to bed with. He states his opinions plainly and gets "nut twitches" when women are around. He's both hardened and a frightened victim of his environment. The close-third narrator tells us Sunderson is often mistaken for Robert Duvall. (The author's fantasy? In my later works, I predict my characters will look and sound like an older Scarlett Johansson.) He arrests criminals and is simultaneously frightened of technology. When he peeps at the girl next door doing naked yoga, he feels bad about it and wishes it were some other way. The story unflinchingly focuses on what living with that lust on the daily feels like.
Sunderson's desire parallels the sins of Dwight, aka "The Great Leader," and here comes the plot. In retirement, he's compelled to investigate Dwight, who preys on young girls and their bank accounts. His pursuit begins in the UP and takes him to Tucson, Arizona, Nebraska and places in between, but the chase is secondary to the real story, which is what goes on in Walt's head. He makes long lists that begin with the situation at hand and then meander: "When I was six my mother slapped me real hard" and "An image of Melissa's ass in the broad daylight of the estuary."
Place is more important than plot. As a lifelong Michigander, I can attest that he paints Michigan in 2008 (financial collapse, the end of GM—in short, our worst year ever) with just the right strokes. Sunderson ruminates on watching the Lions lose their thirteenth straight game, and boy, I felt the pain all over again right there with him. It's no wonder that UPers have given up on Detroit and instead root for the Green Bay Packers.
Sunderson represents the search for Dwight as his own journey towards understanding sex, money, power and religion. The novel lays down all the clues you need to weave these things together without spelling out the conclusions. You will enjoy collecting the facts and synthesizing them for yourself. Sunderson is not spiritual and is a clumsy juggler of what to him seem like disparate elements. If he ever touches God's majesty, it's through the usual rugged individualist's ways of orienting everything through nature. There's a particularly deft chapter where Walt goes off for a week in the wilderness to air out from the booze, culminating in one triumphant sentence: "He had been offered at least temporarily the clarity of breaking a habit." At least, it felt triumphant when I read it. Without context it's underwhelming.
Which leads me to my next point: The prose in The Great Leader isn't always stellar. It tends to be light on art and heavy on explication. Some of the longer sentences carry you to something deep and beautiful, while others just point to clumsy, clinical prose. There's a lot of "Here is what happened, which caused this emotional reaction because of this" constructions. I don't understand people's comparisons of Harrison to Hemingway other than that they both tend to feature masculine men who like fishing. At one point, a character tells a joke, and we get it, but then the narrator explains the meaning of the joke anyway. Here's the trouble with atheist narration: It sometimes doesn't know how to "let go, let God."
Nevertheless. Harrison's novel understands that we engross ourselves in stories for the psychic experience of living through someone else. I'm a 29-year-old girl who's now glimpsed what it's like to be a horny man struggling to understand how people can fall into the traps of sex, money, religion and power without a preponderance of evidence. How could I be anything but the better for it?