‘The Great Leader’ by Jim Harrison

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jake MacDonald

When people say they love Jim Harrison, they aren’t just talking about his books. Harrison is one of those brutally frank, hard-drinking American writers whose persona is at least as entertaining as his writing. He can be deliciously funny and his interviews are never boring. He is a keen hunter and outdoorsman and, during one CBC interview, he was asked if he enjoyed deer hunting. “I could never kill a deer,” he grumbled. “But there are a lot of people I’d like to shoot.”

Over a long prolific literary career he has produced thirty-four books of poetry, essays and fiction, all variations on his life-long preoccupation with wildlife and wild living.  His books repeatedly attack the idiocy and destructiveness of contemporary America. (This might partly explain why his sales are so high in France.) Nothing vexes Harrison like pretense and stupidity – our inability or unwillingness to recognize the obvious. He has a knack of tossing off the sort of bar-room witticisms we wish we’d thought of ourselves. And though his books are erratic in quality, his legions of fans forgive him in advance for his excesses. He’s the colourful uncle who works the edge of the boring family reunion, coaxing the nephews to pull his finger. The results might stink to high heaven, but his fans laugh anyway.

Harrison’s latest novel (The Great Leader) is a sort of cop-genre mystery novel. (The publisher describes it as “a black comic detective novel in the vein of No Country for Old Men.”) This is the sort of hyperbole that undercuts every new work by Harrison. It’s true that both novels have cagey old cops as protagonists, but while reading Cormac McCarthy, you are fully aware of being in the company of a brilliant writer at the high arc of his career. As you settle into The Great Leader you begin to feel a sense of dread – you’ve somehow become trapped on a bar stool next to a writer who has read too many of his own jacket blurbs. The average reader can solve this dilemma by simply tossing the book across the room, but if you’re a lifetime fan, as I am, the disappointment is bitter. The Great Leader is a mystery novel, yes, but the mystery is an unintended one, i.e., how can the same writer who produced such memorable works as Wolf and Dalva, Legends of the Fall and even recent fine books like The English Major have written this rambling mess?

The Great Leader has a plot, sort of. A retired Michigan State policemen named Sunderson decides to embark on an investigation of a cult led by a quack named The Great Leader. The hunt leads him down into the American southwest, where he begins to suspect that The Great Leader is a more sinister and dangerous character than he supposed. Detective Sunderson has many of the same bawdy appetites and ribald opinions as the author, and he is clearly a barely disguised version of Harrison himself. Detective Sunderson loves booze, trout fishing, dogs, women, poetry, and giant platters of greasy meat. He also detests fraudulence, and this spurs his hunt for the phony cult leader. Dishonesty is one of Harrison’s windmills, and the epigraph at the front of the book establishes that the only worthwhile investigation is the one that takes readers (and writers) into the truth of the human condition: “My sealed orders were to determine the shape of the world. The final report is that all assumptions are in error.”

You can’t fault an author for writing a story that differs from one’s “assumptions about the shape of the world” but you can fault Harrison for not writing the story he says he’s going to write. By tapping the bat on home plate and pointing at the distant bleachers he declares his intention to attack fatuity and pretense. But The Great Leader is a fundamentally dishonest novel, and that is its worst failing. The Harrison/Sunderson character by his own description is an over-the-hill, fat, alcoholic slob, but everywhere he goes he is pursued by nubile young women who are aching to take off their clothes and shake their naked bums in his face. There may be some old men who assume that this is going to happen to them on their next road trip through the desert, but there are thousands of others who will testify that those assumptions are in error.

The most improbable of these characters is Mona, his “stunning” sixteen-year-old next-door neighbour, who habitually strips in front of her bedroom window in an attempt to provoke a sexual response from Sunderson. When Sunderson hits the road in pursuit of The Great Leader, he stays in touch with Mona by phone, who continually teases him with overtures of phone sex. Alas, Sunderson is too busy rutting with all the other young lovelies who fling themselves at him wherever he goes. Harrison turns the tables on these invented females by applying a fig-leaf to Sunderson’s reaction. Sunderson’s face “reddens” and he “stares down into his whisky” with embarrassment when Mona starts talking about “pussy-licking. “ Whenever women start flirting with the old detective Harrison explains that Sunderson doesn’t really go for this kind of thing. “The frankness of young women today 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.”

Another stalker, the lovely young Melissa, finally persuades Sunderson to accompany her on a picnic in the desert, which is just a ruse to get him alone so she can peel off her pants and show him her thong underwear. Harrison tells us that “she had the prettiest, most perfect ass he had ever seen.” Detective Sunderson, who is drunk of course, takes the cue.

It was easy to crawl over, pull down the thong, and start lapping errantly, thinking I am a dog who accepts food from strangers.

‘Oh you pig, you fucking pig,’ she said laughing,

“He didn’t have much more than a half-master because of his numbed condition but he managed to get it in where it properly grew in the wet heat. The drug numbness helped him to last longer as did the oddly melodramatic mountain landscape. His hard strokes had pushed them down the grassy bank so that she was grabbing the gunnel of the rowboat to keep them from sliding in the water.

‘You are a fucking pig,’ she said, turning back to look at him.

This is a pretty fair description of what Sunderson experiences with one fetching young woman after another.  At the end of the book, after Sunderson has finished screwing his way across the road map, he returns to Michigan, where he takes up with his biggest fans, the lovely Mona and the lovely Diane. In the novel’s last scene, they are “wagging their butts in the air… both wearing clingy gray cotton gym shorts. At the first stroke of desire Sunderson looked up at the heavens but failed to feel heavenly.”

Harrison evidently can think of no happier future for these young women than hanging around with a burned-out old alcoholic. Is this Harrison’s best effort at portraying the life of what might have been a genuinely interesting character? Let’s hope not.  The Great Leader has been met with the usual cheers and applause from Harrison’s devoted critics. With literary friends like his, he doesn’t need enemies.

Anansi | 324 pages |  $22.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-1770890367


  1. A Reader
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    I cried twice while reading this novel last week. Once somewhere in the middle where the narrator’s sister is talking to him about their long dead brother being the only man she ever loved (if memory serves), and again at the end. Iwas afraid that Jim Harisson was going to do some plot-heavy, big ending, given that this was called by him a “mystery,” albeit a “faux” one. How silly of me. Jim Harrison is still running strong, and he’s writing literature, not genre, and the real concerns of the book run far deeper than the plot. It takes a subtle reader, prepared to encounter a unique book, to see what this book is really about, to read between lines to see a deeper story carefully and elegantly crafted, one that resolutely refuses to insult a reader’s intelligence. (A truly rare thing these days.) Perhaps if one is too busy getting riled up about the plot one _expected_ to see, and the apparently unacceptable sexuality of the book (have you _really_ read Harrison before?), one will miss the true art of this rare and moving book. Sure looks like good old Jake MacDonald did.

  2. Worldy Punter
    Posted February 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I am a Harrison fan, too, and I can not agree more with Jake MacDonald. His description of the improbability of Mona, crazy twists like Sunderson’s ex-wife adopting her . . . Harrison beggars the imagination in this one. This is far from his best effort.

    Well done, MacDonald, for sounding the truth here. Harrison has earned a free pass, it seems, given the chorus of praise this silliness has earned. I can’t imagine a word-for-word first novel from a new author garnering such laurels. It’s flat out nonsense!

    Sidenote: I was looking forward to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, started reading it, but had to put it down when the plot turned to a cult leader abusing prepubescent girls. Sound familiar?

  3. Paul Hoy
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    “The Great Leader has been met with the usual cheers and applause from Harrison’s devoted critics. With literary friends like his, he doesn’t need enemies.”

    Huh? What does that mean? True, this wasn’t Harrison’s best effort, but is this a relevant way to end a review of his work?

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Jake MacDonald

Jake MacDonald's latest book is Grizzlyville, published by Harper Collins.