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]