A drifting, retired detective pursues a cult leader accused of sexual assault.
'The Great Leader" is novelist Jim Harrison's crude pass at detective fiction. While that genre is often clotted with plot at the expense of human story, "The Great Leader" is the opposite. In the guise of following a just-retired, just-divorced Detective Sunderson weakly on the trail of a cult leader for reputed underage sex, we tour Harrison's favorite haunts in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the border wilderness of Arizona, the sand hills of Nebraska. Insomniac Sunderson records every drink, meal, sexual twinge, book he is reading, idea he has and hike he takes, relevant or not to the plot.
Did I say plot? The action is random and sketchy and often unconvincing, clearly not Harrison's primary preoccupation, which is a failing man's internal ruminations. Some of this maundering is funny, such as a scene set at Thanksgiving with Sunderson's family. Sadly such passages are far between.
Women often fault Harrison's female characters, while I have sturdily defended them -- why not women as sexually straightforward as men? But here every one of them, 16 to 60, wants to jump him, and he them. Readers grow to feel like the window-peeping Sunderson himself -- slightly sweaty and, a far worse sin, bored.
The central question of Harrison's agenda is important: the interpenetration of sex and religion in America. We learn a thousand interesting facts. Meanwhile the plot is stuck in neutral, like a pickup in a Michigan snowbank.
I want to yell at Harrison, "Get Sunderson moving, already." Yet stasis may be his point. In the Sargasso Sea of retired, divorced, purposeless males, Sunderson is prowled by remnant instincts, sniffing at the pheromones of confusing desire, soaked in regret and the poisons of alcohol and cigarettes and history.
Still, the portrait is hard to stomach. When a novelist sets up a story, he should at least honor it in the breach. Yet Sunderson's motivations for pursuing the Great Leader with a modicum of tenacity are never made clear. Nor are most of the barely sketched characters credible. For example, Harrison creates the menacing drug dealer Xavier, but gives no clear sense why he should care about Sunderson.
Over the years, Harrison has taken his readers on a brilliant joyride, a full-frontal assault on life with all its appetites and idiocies open on the page. In this instance, Harrison forgot to drive the car. But I can always say after a Harrison adventure, even a maundering one like this: That was a full-course meal, even if I'm stuck with indigestion at the end.
James P. Lenfestey is a poet and former editorial writer for the Star Tribune.