The Great Leader Paperback – Oct 1 2011
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. . . one of the most memorable tales [from] contemporary master [Jim] Harrison . . . (Kirkus 2011-10-01)
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. (Pete Dexter New York Times 2011-10-02)
The Great Leader is precisely what readers will want reading it to be: enthralling, exhilarating, provocative. (T. F. Rigelhof Globe and Mail 2011-10-21)
... wonderful ... lovely writing ... it's amazing how much affection the reader can feel, in the end, for Harrison's anti-hero. (Anne Compton Telegraph Journal 2011-11-05)
There is more wise counsel in the fiction of Jim Harrison than almost anywhere else, expressed through a wry, sardonic smile and a big, bruised heart. (Robert Reid Waterloo Record 2011-10-28)
Often dark, in places dryly funny, and surprisingly touching, The Great Leader [is] a true find, worthy of the attention of anyone who loves good and thought-provoking writing. (Laura Eggertson Toronto Star 2011-10-29)
... a thoroughly enjoyable tale of religion, sex, and money ... it's a wild ride for an old cop trying to get his life back on track and a great read for the rest of us. (Tim McNulty Seattle Times 2011-11-14)
Jim Harrison sticks to what he?s best at here: sex, violence and intrigue...a compulsive read... (Lindsay Rainingbird Coast 2011-11-24)
The Great Leader has all the hallmarks of a classic Harrison novel -- vigorous prose, startling beauty and wicked humour. (Mary Jo Anderson Chronicle Herald 2011-11-27)
Harrison is still writing sentences that make you yearn for more. (Carolyn See Washington Post 2011-12-01)
Harrison has made Sunderson's world very real and inhabitable and populated with all kinds of fascinating and believable characters. Always a writer's writer, Harrison's novel is a terrific addition to the canon of hard-boiled literature. (Charles Mandel HereNB 2012-02-09)
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Harrison is a master of the novella, "Legends of the Fall", the "Brown Dog" stories, et.al. Unfortunately this is not a novella, it stretches on for over 300 pages. There is very little plot, rather, long descriptive passages of the Upper Peninsula and the South West, ruminations on religion, Native American history and writings, food and alcohol. What saves it is Harrison`s masterful prose, laced with humor and wry observations.
Not his best but better than most.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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]
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.
Yes, there is a cult and a 16-year-old involved. But it is really the story and the reminiscences of a born-and-bred Upper Peninsula (Michigan) detective who is forced to retire. His dislocation, loss of identity and self-confidence, and his eventual awareness of how much he loves the UP and the new opportunities and interests that present themselves. The situations and his reactions to them echo Robert B Parker's Jesse Stone and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series (If you like The Great Leader, you will love Kurt Wallander!).
The writing is superb-- creating clear and compelling word-pictures of lovely landscapes, rugged canyons, happy times and interesting people. The detective's inner turmoil, venal impulses and eclectic interests are realistically and engagingly presented.
I was expecting a typical mystery. What I got was a window into the soul of a mature and complex man and an engrossing travelogue of the UP and the Nogales, AZ locale. I'm happy with what I got.
But the fact is, this book is primarily about the journey of Sunderson himself, including his past, much of which is slowly revealed on his camping and walking forays. Sunderson is an unmoored soul, not at all sure what to do with himself. Not only has his lifelong work disappeared but his lengthy marriage to the good-looking, efficient Diane ended three years before, precipitating protracted drinking bouts, which have lessened only slightly.
He is a pretty good looking, unassuming, and friendly guy, who, through the years, instead of badgering suspects and witnesses, is inclined to cut through their defenses by offering to buy them a beer. But much more is at work with Sunderson than first appears. He has a reverence for history, constantly reading and putting matters into perspective. He is a devoted brook trout fisherman, finding fishing trips and the general commune with nature to be regenerating.
Most noticeable about Sunderson, however, is his continued fascination, at age sixty-five, with women, especially those with shapely rear-ends. And his interest is generally reciprocated, which is not without its troubles. His intimate connection with a nurse he met in an Arizona hospital, while recovering from an assault by Dwight's followers, comes with having to deal with her violent Mexican drug lord brother. And there is 16-year-old next door neighbor Mona, who likes to parade in her bedroom sans clothes with lights on and curtains open. Fortunately, Sunderson is able to redirect that mutual interest. It turns out that she is a computer sleuth extraordinaire and is immensely helpful in nailing down the mysterious Dwight.
The story is really rather ragged - not to mention the writing style - proceeding by leaps and jerks, often with Sunderson in the wilderness on the edge of getting lost or freezing to death. And there is the distracting untidiness of his moving every few days in Arizona, often abruptly, not to mention his unsatisfactory dealings with his mother and siblings who live in Arizona. Most interesting about the book are the musings of Sunderson on all manner of subjects. He works through some of his thinking via long conversations with his friend Marion, a half-Indian school principal in the UP. And although Sunderson is a lusty old guy, he seems to gain a certain stability in his life through his dealings with women.