THE GREAT LEADER by Jim Harrison

Book Quote:

“He wondered if religion was partly the love for an imaginary parent and whether any steps to make contact with this parent were justifiable.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (OCT 30, 2011)

Once, many years ago when I was living in Northern Michigan, Jim Harrison walked into the restaurant where I was dining. He didn’t so much walk in, in retrospect, as lumber in. It was the Blue Bird Cafe and I confess that I’d been hanging out there in the hopes of catching a glimpse of him. I was young, trying to turn myself into a writer, and seeking out an idol. Even back then, over thirty years ago, he had lassoed my imagination. Like, many other Harrison readers, it started with Legends of the Fall (1979), then continued with Dalva (1988), and later, The Road Home (1998), a book that changed my life. Much later, I devoured his memoir, Off to the Side (2002), then started filling in the gaps. I studied his poetry, for Harrison thinks of himself first as a poet–and of course there was the column, The Raw and the Cooked in Esquire and Men’s Journal. I used to read the column at the grocery store, between the frozen foods and the bread rack, returning the magazine when I was finished. (Harrison was a foodie before it became sexy, though his style in no way suggests an affinity to the current legions of balsamic vinegar-sniffing poseur journalists.) The man has no gap in his repertoire.

That by way of introduction and confession: there will be no objectivity to this review.

I wish I’d mustered the courage to introduce myself and tell him how much I appreciate his work, but that’s not my style and I image it’s not his either. How do you approach someone who has peered so throughly into your being? A man the critics cite as the progeny of Faulkner and Hemingway? A real died-in-the-wool man of letters? A quiet and respectful distance is the way to go, at least that’s what we do in the Midwest from which we both harken. Anyway, he was seated at the bar. Bothering a man at a bar is bad form.

It has been said that Harrison is that rare writer who can successfully blend the life of the mind with the life of action. It is a formula, though I am hesitate to use that word, that most often appeals to the male reader. That said, the voice he created for Dalva, a woman, in the book of the same name, astounded critics for being so spot-on a female voice–and this from a manly man.

The Great Leader falls soundly into the Harrison oeuvre. It is the story of a hard-drinking, female-ogling fiercely-independent male, Simon Sunderson. (Harrison’s men ogle without the uncomfortable squeamishness of, say, those created by Roth or the hormonal blindness of Updike.)  Sunderson, a recently retired detective, lives deep in Harrison territory, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It was good to live in a place largely ignored by the rest of the world,” reflects Sunderson. Though now officially off the job, Sunderson can’t seem to call it quits and the novel finds him in pursuit of a religious cult leader with an affinity for young girls. Like so many of Harrison’s characters, Sunderson is not so much a reflection of biography as an amalgam ideas. Attempting to explain his current pursuit: “My hobby has always been history,” Sunderson says. “I became interested in the relationship between religion, money and sex.”

Sunderson, not without his personal challenges, is trying hard to be a better man. He misses his wife Diane who left him three years earlier, though they remain in close contact. (“With Diane he always felt a little vulgar and brutish…”) He is a father figure to a neighbor, a sixteen-year-old hottie who seems hell-bent on seducing him. (“The frankness of young women these days always caught him off guard and made him feel like a middle-aged antique, or like a diminutive football player without a face guard on his helmet.”) He drinks too much and is trying to cut back. He spends a lot of time by himself in the woods, thinking, walking around and resolving to make retirement work. His progress is slow on all fronts. He is wracked with ideas, but execution is haphazard.

There is a character in the novel, a friend of Sunderson, who ruefully observes “that a central fact of our time was the triumph of process over content.” That notion is at the core of the Harrison attraction. His prose, like his characters, is direct and intelligent, without many grace notes and devoid of filigree. There is, in other words, a zen-like transparency to the Harrison process. That process, the act of conveying content, is trumped every time by content. Pulling that off consistently, as Harrison continues to do, is a talent that is reserved for the best of the best. This novel is an example of how rare such a voice has become.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press (October 4, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jim Harrison
EXTRAS: Interview and Excerpt
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October 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, Mystery/Suspense, US Midwest

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