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THE GREAT LEADER


By Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 2011 ($24.00)

ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-1970-4
Kindle eBook ($8.74)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Author Jim Harrison subtitles his novel "A Faux Mystery." That's an understatement, because there's little reality to the book at all.

Harrison is a man of letters, respected by critics as an author and poet, and he certainly has the credentials to back this up, numerous awards and accolades. Not having read Harrison's other works, a general opinion cannot properly be given and I cannot speak to his overall literary gifts, but THE GREAT LEADER left me confused and frustrated.

Newly retired police detective Simon Sunderson is suffering from typical out-of-work syndrome. He lives in the U.P., the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where there's apparently not a lot for an older guy to do. So Sunderson takes upon himself the investigation of a local charismatic cult leader whom he's named Dwight, the man's real name being somewhat of its own mystery. Sunderson seizes upon Dwight as his mission because the cult leader has "short eyes," a taste for underage girls.

This is a bit disingenuous because Sunderson himself has an ill-concealed lust for the sixteen-year-old nymphet Mona next door. Mona is an exhibitionist, at least for Sunderson, and regularly treats him to blatant peep shows. Whether Sunderson has chosen to investigate Dwight as a means to subjugate guilt for his own enjoyment of young women is one potential motivation.

Whatever the reason, Sunderson pursues Dwight and his followers when they relocate to Arizona. This change of locale might be justified because the author makes his home in Arizona now and wishes to provide us a brief travelogue. Regardless of the motive, being retired, Sunderson has no authority there, let alone in his home territory. Yet pursue he does, and finds himself in hot water as a result.

All this would normally be a good basis for a suspense thriller, or at the very least, an intriguing mystery. THE GREAT LEADER however suffers from a lack of linearity and narrative drive. Not that the book isn't well written, because it is. Harrison uses superb and poetic metaphor, with enticing and languid sentences, composed as if a good friend were telling you a story over a relaxed dinner and drinks. The prose envelops you with its texture and detached humor, a wistful summer breeze, provoking an equally leisurely read.

But a mystery it's not and many fans of the genre might find the style offputting. I'm a dedicated Joycean, and I can assure you that the story line of "Ulysses" is easier to follow.

All writers have their personal agenda, and all of them take their adversaries to task in their novels, whether it's corporate greed, socialism, fascism, or simply bad drivers. But Harrison lays it on with a fork lift. He rants against industrialism, commerce large or small, affronts to Native Americans whether real or inferred, and all organized religions, particularly Mormons and Roman Catholics. The only thing of value, even slightly, seems to be the U.P., where it becomes apparent that residents there have some intrinsic merit, possibly for simply having the gumption to keep living there.

A little goes a long way here, and if the harangues are too frequent and take too long, the diatribe disrupts the narrative. I'd estimate that Harrison spends half the novel lecturing us. If we were to deliberately choose a politically themed book, so much the better. But if we are looking for a mystery, we may become fatigued at being preached to so vigorously along the way.

Fans of Jim Harrison may be delighted with THE GREAT LEADER. And it's certainly not a hack job because the novel is artfully crafted as a philosophical set piece should be. Just not a mystery. Calling it faux was spot on.

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