The Great Leader (2011)
By Jim Harrison
Like that one, this new novel is about a solitary man in his 60s dealing with his changing life, but here he’s a retiring detective obsessed with one last case, and this gives the personal journey a shape along with the momentum of the detective story. Moreover, Harrison has created a credible character in Upper Michigan police detective Sunderson, with original qualities for a police procedural.
Sunderson wants to finally nail the Great Leader of a religious cult who preys upon underage teenage girls, sexually and financially. Sunderson understands the sexual temptation all too well, thanks to his foxy young neighbor Mona, especially when Mona seems to invite his advances. But he resists, and their relationship is one of several that becomes complicated, funny, surprising and very, very human. Think Larry McMurtry meets Raymond Chandler, for starters.
The police detective whose wife has left him is a genre (and especially TV) cliche, but for once there’s a reason: Sunderson could not help anticipating the worst (“If you’re a cop long enough even songbirds are under suspicion”) which was too relentlessly depressing for his wife, Diane, who has remarried, but reenters the story halfway through.
More typical of Harrison, Sunderson’s best friend is Native American, and the detective (a former history major) feels the weight of the attempted genocide of whole peoples, as well as their land. (So there’s a certain poetry in the ending, which I will not give away.)
Like anyone his age, Sunderson is also haunted by regret, yet he is sweating his way through a transition to new possibilities afforded by retirement. The subtleties of that process track the search for the cult leader. It’s one of several correspondences that make this a shapely novel. It fulfills the expectations of the detective genre and of the novel form, which includes novelty. Both stories have vivid endings.
Meanwhile there are the meditations on contemporary life expected in a Harrison novel, this time informally emphasizing the interrelationship of sex, money and religion. Harrison is really good at presenting a character in the rough, more comfortable in nature, but whose mind is active and alive.
Along the way there’s Harrison’s unique writing: paragraphs that read like a random collection of non sequiters with bizarre (or no) punctuation, that keep you off balance for the explosive zingers that pop off the page.
A bit of inside baseball, and maybe an inside joke: Sunderson mentions reading a book by poet Gary Snyder, and in the real world there’s a video on sale of old friends Snyder and Harrison talking (The Etiquette of Freedom) But that doesn’t stop Harrison from giving chunks of Snyder’s life (his college, his first book) to this novel’s villain.