Writer Jim Harrison is to letters what Woody Allen is to film. If that seems a stretch, consider: both are prolific, releasing a new work (or more) yearly. Both were born during the Depression, two years apart, both in December. Both mix drama and comedy into something that’s entertaining as well as thought provoking. Both are fixed on the complications resulting from relationships and sex. Both are obsessed with mortality. Both have tried their hand at writing from a woman’s point-of-view. Both are connected to specific locations, Harrison to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Allen to Manhattan’s Upper Westside (and more recently, Barcelona and Paris). Both are revered in France.
Okay, it’s still a stretch. The grizzled, one-eyed novelist and poet who wrote Legends of the Fall and some 30 other volumes of prose and poetry is more at home in the outdoors than the bespectacled urbanite who wrote and directed Interiors (no matter how much of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy takes place outdoors) . And while Harrison’s characters, like Allen’s, often dwell on the fact that their days, as everyone’s, are numbered, they don’t all take it personally. They’re more stoical about it.
Take 65-year-old Detective Sunderson from Harrison latest novel The Great Leader. “He thought just because you’re older doesn’t mean that death is imminent every day. There’s generally a tip-off when it’s coming.” Tips, being the detective’s stock-and-trade, need to be acted on. And Sunderson’s been given more than a few.
If your hunch is that detective fiction is out of character for someone as literate as Harrison, you’d be half right. Detective Sunderson doesn’t break from the manly Harrison mold. He’s burly, fond of brook trout, dogs and deer livers. He has a frustration-inducing appreciation for female posteriors and is prone to use whiskey as a cure. Three years ago, his troubled lifestyle cost him “the world’s finest woman,” according to his niggling 85-year-old mother. It’s his down-home style of introspection, in light of his vices, that stands him apart from the usual sleuth.
Recently retired after a career policing familial abuse, small-time drug dealing, and bear poaching, our detective is hardboiled country-style. When asked why he continues to follow The Great Leader out of the hummocks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Arizona and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, he claims he’s investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex. A more accurate answer: he’s pursuing himself.
If this doesn’t exactly sound like Manhattan Murder Mystery that’s because it isn’t. There are plenty of dark moments and intimations of mortality in The Great Leader, though balanced by comic action and witty asides. Plot? Only the barest, vulture-picked bones. Along the way, Sunderson is threatened with a sodomy charge, has a run-in with a Mexican drug kingpin, eats prodigiously and suffers gout. It’s not a thriller and there’s not a lot of suspense. But if you’re fond of existential puzzles, then The Great Leader is your rib steak.
In this age-of-anxiety sense, The Great Leader is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s1985 mystery City of Glass, an existential detective yarn in which the unraveling thread of the central charter’s psyche is more knotty than the mystery he’s trying to solve. While Auster’s tale is surreal, Harrison’s is well-grounded. Auster says, “nothing is real, except chance.” Harrison counters, “there is no truth, only stories. “ As a detective, Sunderson‘s heard plenty.
The real mystery here is Sunderson himself. Even as he plots the downfall of the cult leader for his taste in 12-year-olds, he ogles his 16-year-old neighbor girl, an exhibitionist whose bedroom window is just 30 feet from his. That and the excitement he feels almost every time a woman bends over cause him to curse “the distracting nuisance” of the biological imperative, like “carrying around a backpack full of cow manure.”
Harrison is skilled at straight-talking life’s big issues and the book is full of homily. “Crime did pay but usually very little,” Sunderson observes. Or, when marveling at the rejuvenating powers of time spent in the wild, “A creek is more powerful than despair.”
Not all such insight seems worthy: “Men would say they were as horny as a toad but who among them knew if a toad was horny?” Sometimes, Harrison’s dialog seems unnaturally smart, as when a tough plainclothes cop, describing religion as a drug, says, “you know, the Marxian opiate of the people.”
But by and large, Sunderland’s social and political one-liners give a jolt on almost every page. He’s outspoken on religion, Republicans, the FBI, American history (especially when it came to Native Americans), 9-11 and justice (“When a guy with four DUIs runs over a kid and receives less time than a college kid with a half-pound of pot…”); all tempered by his unruly self-doubt: “…what were his conclusions worth? Hadn’t he been put out to pasture?”
Sunderson eventually chases down a sort of religion of his own, one anchored in extended family and the natural world. Like Alvy Singer in Allen’s Annie Hall, he finds solace in his surroundings, a beauty and buzz of life that’s present no matter which landscape he’s in. It’s this revelation that helps him get his man. I won’t tell you which one.–Cabbage Rabbit