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The Great Leader [Paperback]

Jim Harrison
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2011
Literary legend Jim Harrison gives us a brilliant new work that finds him writing at the height of his powers, and in fresh and audacious new directions. The Great Leader is the story of Detective Sunderson, a northern Michigan police detective who has recently retired and has one case he can’t quite shake -- the investigation of a cult leader whom he eventually pursues to Arizona and further afield. Harrison gives readers a unique take on the culture of “Yoopers” (what folks from the rest of Michigan and the Midwest call people from the Upper Peninsula) and cops, in a novel that is wonderfully clever, powerful, and slyly redemptive.

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". . . one of the most memorable tales [from] contemporary master [Jim] Harrison . . ." --Kirkus, October 1, 2011

"You can still feel the excitement every time [Jim Harrison] pulls something new out of his ear, which happens on pretty much every page he writes . . . very close to magic." --The New York Times, September 30, 2011

About the Author

Jim Harrison is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The winner of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has had work published in twenty two languages. He divides his time between Michigan, Montana, and Arizona.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good read Oct. 5 2011
A new book by a mature novelist tells the story of a retired detective on the trail of a cult leader with a penchant for girls from age 12 and up. Soaked in the pleasures and pain of alcohol and food (this protagonist, Sunderson, is no vegan!), the book would have been reduced to a novella without the aforementioned descriptions of booze and meat. The other themes are the temptations of sex and the healing effects of nature walks for this 65 year-old.

A minor quibble is that some sentences would have been more clear with the use of more commas. I had to re-read some to make sure I understood their meaning. The beauty of well-placed punctuation cannot be understated.

Otherwise a well-written work by one America's better authors. It will certainly be appreciated by readers who generally like Jim Harrison's oeuvre.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly entertaining. Oct. 26 2011
Retired police detective Sunderson has just retired from the Marquette, Michigan police force. He was in the middle of an investigation of a cult leader suspected of having sexual relations with minors. Ironically, Sunderson has his own sexual proclivities in that direction spying on his neighbour, Mona, who walks naked around her bedroom well aware of Sunderson's prying eyes. Hardly, a female enters the story narrative that his character doesn't remark on the shapeliness of her rear end or the size and shape of her breasts. His interest verges on the obsessive. Sunderson philosophizes on all manner of subjects besides male sexuality; fishing for brook trout, his relationship with a wife he believes rightly divorced him, death, Mexican women, Mexican gangs, cult religions etc. You get the picture. The book's been rightly subtitled, 'a faux mystery,' because there really isn't much of a mystery with few words expended on its unraveling, and little effort arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, the book is surprisingly entertaining and well worth the time spent reading it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.4 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harrison as moving, memorable and lusty as ever Sept. 16 2011
By Rett01 - Published on
Something less than a rant, Jim Harrison's "The Great Leader" reads like the ruminations of a randy old geezer who hasn't lost his sexual itch and is struggling to come to terms with his fading prowess while lamenting lost love.

Fact is, though, unless you've already finished Harrison's previous two novels "The Farmers Daughter" (2009) and "The English Major" (2008), you've probably never experienced rumination that's this erudite and passionate on so many subjects and as satisfying as a good day fishing the riffles on a favorite trout stream.

Harrison is preoccupied with many of the same issues as essayist Edward Hoagland whose meditations in "Sex and the River Styx" cover much of the same ground - nature, sex and mortality. But Hoagland tends to lament while Harrison is most often exuberant and inclined to look for the hilarity often entwined with the absurdities of life.

Harrison's latest is another of his good reads, especially if you're a male who like his main character Simon Sunderson, suffers from advanced middle age (he's 65), has a gourmand's appetite and is still wrestling with a tickly libido. If that's you, "The Great Leader" is pitch-perfect in its rendering of your often perplexed state of mind and your woeful physical disintegration.

The further he slips into geezerhood, the randier Harrison seems to get. The book plants itself on the other end of the spectrum from prissy. If you thought "The English Major" indelicate in any way, I'd suggest passing on "The Great Leader." Sex inherently lends itself to comedy but at some point what's bawdy becomes raunchy. Harrison isn't there yet, but with each new novel he seems to be getting closer.

A thread of narrative weaves through the "Great Leader. The story remains mostly in the background as Sunderson, unhappily divorced from his beloved former wife Diane and recently retired as a law enforcement officer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, tracks down a cult leader and sex offender named Dwight, The Great Leader, who now calls himself King David.

The pursuit takes Sunderson to the outback of Arizona and into the wide-open spaces of Nebraska. Although he's now retired, Sunderson wants to close out this case as his last act after serving forty years as "janitor trying to clean up the culture's dirt." Sunderson wants to move on and spend his time "investigating the nature of nature."

The story is really about the natural world and Sunderson's respect for the Northwoods and its indigenous people and their culture. His best friend Marion, a mixed-blood Anishinabe (Chippewa), is the voice of wisdom and of Native American lore and legend that saturates this very reverent book.

Mona, who is sixteen years old and sexually precocious, lives next door and enjoys trying to entice Sunderson. I suppose she represents today's mores, our dependence on technology and living in the moment. The large cast of oddball characters also includes cult members Queenie and Carla and Sunderson's 87-year-old mother who has never lost the ability to intimidate.

Even more so than Hemingway, Harrison gives definition to the word macho, which in Sunderson's world is described as "male braggadocio." Harrison's novels are stuffed with tales of "manly pursuits" hunting, fishing and womanizing. Yes, there's a lot of sex, which for Harrison is "the biological imperative." He refers often to and has many names for the male sexual organ and it's described in a variety of states at rest and at play. And as often as he mulling over sex, the act and its meaning, he is talking about food.

Good eating and good sex for Harrison are like two peas in the same little pod. Dining on menudo, a Mexican dish made from tripe, is for Sunderson a vaguely sexual experience, "the labial texture made him horny."

Harrison also likes to quantify things: his fifth worst hangover, his best ever sandwich was, "a real pile of brisket on rye slathered with the hottest horseradish possible so that tears of pain and pleasure came freely" and seven, the number of double whiskeys he prefers to drink in one sitting.

Harrison has written more than thirty books in his long and esteemed career. I'll go on reading everything of his published. Two of his best are the memoir "Off to the Side" (2003), which chronicles an interesting life well lived and his 2002 collection of food writing "The Raw and the Cooked", a celebration of food and Harrison's gusto for good eating.

Obviously, I'm admirer of the writer and Harrison, the person, who admires "even the crudest manifestations of nature." I feel some sort of kinship. I'm Harrison's age. I head to Lake Superior to clear the mind. I share most all of his appetites. Like Harrison, I wait for April when trout season opens. (I'm one up on the writer because as far as I know he's never had the thrill of fishing the streams of the Driftless Area of Southwest Wisconsin.)

I mention all this because it's a clear indicator I'm a biased Harrison reader. With that disclosure - and I believe I've set aside my bias and am being objective here - "The Great Leader" is as moving, memorable and lusty as anything on the Harrison bookshelf.
[4.5 of 5 stars]
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The aging man's blues Sept. 30 2011
By TChris - Published on
As a divorced police detective in Marquette, Michigan, Sunderson's life is generally sedate. The kind of crime that requires detective work is far from rampant in the Upper Peninsula. His hobbies include trout fishing and surreptitiously watching a teen neighbor arise naked from her bed each morning. Sunderson is sure he would cut off his own hands before touching the girl "but then he wondered how one would go about cutting off his own hands." Every ten days a married woman visits Sunderson for sex. Sunderson considers "what it would be like to be full of firm moral resolve" but clearly that's an experience he will never have.

Sunderson's final investigation before retirement involves a cult leader (known to the cult's members as the Great Leader but adopting the name Dwight as his most recent alias) who was rumored to have been sexually involved with minors before apparently faking his death. Unsuccessful in his attempt to locate the culprit, Sunderson decides to flee from his home after his retirement party (where he is chagrined to learn that his inappropriate behavior with a dancing girl -- who happens to be a potential witness against Dwight -- was seen by the other attendees). Sunderson travels to Arizona where he takes up a new hobby: investigating "the crime of religion," which amounts to searching for Dwight. There he meets more women: Lucy, who reminds him a bit too much of Diane, his ex-wife; and Melissa, a nurse whose protective brother is a drug lord. His time in the Southwest gives Sunderson ample opportunity to ruminate about his failures and obsessions, an occupation he continues after his return to the U.P.

Jim Harrison writes lovingly of land and nature; the reliability of its "indefatigable creature life" contrasts with the unreliability of human nature. Although Sunderson keeps track of Dwight's activities, what passes for a plot in The Great Leader is just an excuse for Harrison to exercise his wit and make pithy observations about American life. Harrison focuses his dry and occasionally outrageous humor on a variety of human behavior (and misbehavior). His most prominent targets are sex, religion, money, divorce, and retirement (the last of which makes Sunderson feel "not quite like a roadkill but like a man whose peripheries have been squashed, blurred, by the loss of his defining profession"). Harrison skewers the notion that men can reinvent themselves after retirement; Sunderson's efforts leave him feeling like "a dog who, hit by a car, drags himself into a ditch trying to be more out of harm's way." As he did in The English Major, Harrison has fun exploring the sexual interests of a man who, having physically passed beyond middle age, demonstrates the emotional maturity of a rutting teenager.

Warnings: In his descriptions of Sunderson's intimate life and fantasies, Harrison is explicit -- no more so than many modern humorists, but enough to put off readers who disapprove of erotic content, even when it's funny. Sunderson's thoughts provide a running commentary on history, politics, and sex after sixty -- topics that might offend readers who disagree with his pointed opinions. Others might be upset that Sunderson doesn't vigorously condemn every adult who has sex with a teenager (a frequent subject of his wandering thoughts). Whether I agreed with Sunderson's opinions or not -- sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't -- they frequently made me laugh, and I found many of his notions about society's failings to be on target.

When I read a Harrison novel, it takes me awhile to adjust to his unique style. I wouldn't describe his sentences as run-on, but the man is no fan of the comma. The style isn't necessarily bad, just different -- although I'm not sure I ever completed the adjustment. I don't read Harrison novels for stylistic brilliance, and I wouldn't recommend this one for its plot, which doesn't amount to much. I nonetheless enjoyed this book (and recommend it) for its humor and for its perceptive takes on life as seen through the eyes of a Midwestern senior citizen. Harrison provokes serious thought nearly as often as snickers and chuckles. He is the best chronicler of the "aging man blues" I've come across. When I laugh at the foibles displayed by his characters, I'm often laughing at myself. That, for me, made the reading experience worthwhile.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing the Soul's Relationship to the Natural World Sept. 25 2011
By Darrell Koerner - Published on
Jim Harrison is the greatest living writer in America because of his deep communion with American landscapes and his amazing ability of being able to interiorize the natural world, and then express in words that which is beyond words. Balanced by his no-nonsense background and love of nature, Harrison is both deceptively simple and deceptively elegant in his appreciation for the basic and finer things of life - hunting, fishing, cooking, drinking, eating, literature, and human sexuality. He sees through mankind's absurd notion of being superior to the earth and other species, while at the same time honoring our eternal quest for knowledge and wisdom. In "The Great Leader", Harrison eloquently reveals that humans are often nothing more than insane bipedal apes and that we also have the ability to correct our insanity by awakening to our deep and original connection to the living universe. Every new book he writes is a testament to this man's greatness. Jim Harrison is a National Treasure.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars dirty old man June 13 2013
By kate - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I usually love Jim Harrison's phrasing and thoughtful prose and meandering story lines. That is not the problem with this book...the real issue I have is that it is a truely boring story. We never really find out enough about the cult, is it a detective novel or just a testement to the lechery of an old men over a 15 yr. old. very disappointing at best.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mindless Meanderings June 8 2013
By Robert Hooper - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
This book purports to be about the search to stop a cult leader. It is actually a boring stream of consciousness and mindless meanderings from a retired detective who struggles to adjust to retired life. Of course the author included plenty of gratuitous sex. Boring!
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