Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jim Harrison's "The Great Leader"

I've been reading Jim Harrison's new novel, The Great Leader. It's about an upper peninsula detective with history as a hobby. His wife left him 3 years earlier. He mourns that loss as well as the death of his beloved dog.

I'm drawn to Harrison much as I'm drawn to Charles Bowden's work: neither writer has been castrated by too much civilization; both men see clearly and feel deeply; neither is afraid of revealing the weaknesses and proclivities that we (men especially) are prone to.

He retires at 65, early in the novel, but keeps on with a case he had —investigating a religious leader with pseudo native-american new-age sensibilities who gathered a group together in a longhouse in the woods and fucked them one and all. So the detective keeps following him, first to Arizona and then to Nebraska, even as he retires, trying to figure out the connections between sex, religion, and money. 

Early on the Great Leader shared some blackberry wine with him: "he was amused when Sunderson [the detective] had spit his blackberry wine on the ground thinking it tasted strongly of Robitussin cough syrup. 'What kind of fucking geek would drink this?' Sunderson had asked. 'My people,' G.L. had answered, adding that all herbalists knew that blackberries increased sexual energy." 

In another early part, he's half dreaming about naked cult members and his girlfriend Roxy: "he didn't care for one of her favoritye sexual positions which was to sit nude on his clothes dryer turned to 'cotton sturdy high' to feel the warm vibrations. He was 5'9" and had to stand on a low stool for proper contact and feared pitching over backward at climax. . . . In contrast, on a trip to Italy with his wife he had been absurdly and elegantly stimulated by the draped forms of Renaissance women in paintings. Sexuality had so many layers and those at the bottom were pathetic indeed." 

The old man in this ragbagofabook drinks too much and is getting old and although he peeks through his window at the neighbor girl who gets naked for him he would never sleep with the 16-year-old although he does with plenty of women.

And what to do now that he has retired, now that he is divorced, now that he is 65? He walks a lot, thinks about brook trout, tries to get close to the cult leader, drinks and dreams:

"Before answering Mona's call he had had a confused dream that had his favorite brook trout creek becoming round, a perfect circle in the meadow, woods, and marsh that was its path. Toward the end it had become coiled and serpentine, which reminded him of some of Marion's favorite ideas. The aging process was linear with the inevitability of gravity but our thinking and behavior tended to occur in clusters, knots that wound and unwound themselves."

"Turning from the beach and the loose sand and snow blasting into his face with the thunder of the waves in his ears he resented the frailty of his age. He felt that the cold was his heritage and now it was betraying him, a bit dramatic for the simple fact that he had forgotten to put on his wool long underwear."

In the end the book doesn't really end but that's perfect for this guy who isn't dead yet so why should the book end.

Darkest day of the year tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Harrison is first among my favorite living American writers, in small part because we are the same age, from the Midwest, and enjoy the polish that time takes on while fishing for trout; and in large part because he combines melancholy and joyfullness in such equal measures and so beautfifully that one can't tell them apart. "The Great Leader" is one of his best. After reading it I had a bounce in my step for a few days, recalling what Franzen said about the devotees of David Foster Wallace: "The curious thing about David's fiction though is how recognizable and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it."

Scott Abbott said...

that's a beautiful evocation of what it feels like to read harrison. thank you.

i recently read The English Major and like it very much as well.

bleason said...

Harrison tells the truth about the trills and agonies of retirement.