THE GREAT LEADER
By Jim Harrison
Grove. 329 pp. $24
Years ago, near Jackson Lake, Wyo., there was a terrific literary conference about the West, attended only by writers from the West. One of the goals was to civilize these Rough Writers. Guests received invitations written in meticulous calligraphy to something called “The Dinner Party” with a feather from hostess Terry Tempest Williams.
Once there, the question was: Who was the most Western of us all? Jim Harrison won hands down. The novelist had muscles like a buffalo, drank too much and listened to academics and women with barely concealed amusement and contempt. It was whispered that after the chaos of the 1960s, he had retreated to the woods to find some shred of civilization and peace of mind.
Now, some 30 or 40 years after that Dinner Party weekend, the West is still rolling along; bears sometimes show up along with the mail in populated communities like Pasadena; and Harrison is still writing sentences that make you yearn for more.
If I seem to digress, it follows the theme of his new novel, “The Great Leader,” a dark, wry story about a man troubled by loss and life’s big questions. Detective Sunderson has just gone through the trauma of his retirement party, where he proved to be so deficient in common decency that he sodomized a frisky teenager hired as party entertainment against a cord of wood while his enthralled colleagues watched from snowy windows.
In truth, Sunderson is going through two of the worst traumas that any man can experience, outside of the horrors of war: 1. He’s lost his job, “his defining profession”; 2. After a marriage of 40 years, his beautiful wife, Diane, has left him. She complains that he’s unable to see anything but what’s wrong in the universe. (Which is undeniably true. He’s obsessed by the stupidity of Congress, the disgracefulness of how we’ve treated the Indians and the general venality of American life.)
As the story develops, Sunderson tries to control his shaming desire for the 16-year-old girl next door, pals around with a bookish half-breed, goes for long walks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and drinks far too much. He’s waiting for brook trout season to begin, although he’s not above snacking on the fresh doe liver that his friends serve up to him as consolation. Sunderson is still sick-in-love with Diane, who’s married again, and he’s a compendium of bad habits, but he walks every day and somehow keeps his life in balance.
As for the Great Leader of the title, Sunderson has met him several times before. He’s a two-bit intellectual who spent a lot of time at the library at U.C. Berkeley inventing a religion with 100 levels of spirituality. His congregation includes 12-year-old girls with whom he can have sex. No one, not the children nor their parents, want to press charges, and Sunderson is already retired, so the whole case is amorphous. But violent things happen, with real consequences, and people get hurt, leading Sunderson to more heavy reading and to pondering a heavy question: What exactly is the connection between “sex, finance and religion.” Criminal behavior and the eventual chase are only incidental here. Harrison is interested in Sunderson’s life as it may be winding down — or unexpectedly winding back up.
Sunderson is an attractive man (he looks exactly like Robert Duvall), and he whiles away his time with a wealthy heiress who cries incessantly and a sweet-faced Mexican nurse whose narco brother killed her husband. But Harrison insists on a perfectly ordinary life for Sunderson. Occasional sex, too much drinking, a lot of laughing and thinking and more drinking and talking. And also that great big torch he carries for the wonderful Diane and a reverence for nature in general and brook trout in particular. He’s a man’s man in the very best sense of the expression — a man we’d love to camp out with if we could only put up a tent.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.