After a long career in the Michigan state police, stationed mostly in the Upper Peninsula, newly retired Detective Sunderson of Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader fantasizes about being recruited by a band of vigilante ex-lawmen bent on assassinating the major white-collar globalizing criminals suborning the U.S. Congress.
But Sunderson knows that the only big thing he really has any chance of doing is much smaller: Can he find the evidence he needs to send to prison Dwight/King David, the Great Leader of a cult that offers 100 stages of pseudo-Native American spiritual enlightenment in return for tens of thousands of dollars, and as many underage sexual partners and soft-porn images of pubescent girls as each of his demented acolytes can provide, either by volunteering their own daughters or recruiting runaways.
Harrison has subtitled his novel A Faux Mystery, and he’s right. Harrison knows that if a writer wants to speak truth to power in Tea Party America, and to be heard and understood in the mainstream rather than marginalized as an eccentric madman (he’s been there, had that done to him), then the “voice” of his truth-teller has to imitate a flawed lawman. Thus, Sunderson is his own worst enemy: He’s divorced because Diane, the ex, grew too tired of living with a man who views the world through excrementally coloured glasses. He sleeps badly and makes dumb mistakes when awake because he drinks too much whisky, eats too much poor folks’ food and suffers from hangovers, gout, acid reflux and inappropriate sexual impulses.
What he’s got going for him is a comic sense of the human condition; a non-violent nature (in 40 years of police work, he’s never killed anyone); kinship with brook trout, ravens and hunting dogs. ; and the right sidekick in his quest to bring Dwight/King David to justice, Mona, the girl who lives next door in Marquette. She’s 16, a Goth who is outrageous in her sexual behaviour but a brilliant hacker, who tracks the Great Leader’s whereabouts and activities from her bedroom computer
In fact, Harrison has a hoot of a time creating a detective who is probably 98.5 per cent self-portrait, but the 1.5 per cent that isn't is both a very, very funny joke on himself and on his faithful readers. To say more risks spoiling the punch line.
As the Great Leader and his followers move south from the Lake Superior country to Arizona’s southern extreme and on to Nebraska, Sunderson travels into less and less familiar parts of America and comes to grips with more and more parts of himself, dealing with criminals of several kinds.
Like other ill-mannered good guys in crime fiction, Harrison’s detective has a chip on his shoulder. But in Sunderson’s case, the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial straddles his neck and feels about the weight of the Statue of Liberty. If he hadn’t taken up police work and become addicted to its adrenaline rushes, he would have ended up a history teacher in a small college, thinking too much and doing too little about the ways in which America’s dominant religious, political and sexual practices keep most of us from ever unravelling the real mystery that confronts us: that, as Wittgenstein wrote, the world exists.
Sunderson carries his old gun and badge on his quest, but packs two books that are handier in resolving the paradox of why victims don’t want to testify against Dwight/King David: Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian and D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature – like the original Tea Party, Dwight/King David's would-be Haida-Apaches want to revel in savagery while propounding civilized order.
Jim Harrison is fond of saying, “A novel is what it is.” The Great Leader is precisely what readers will want reading it to be: enthralling, exhilarating, provocative.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.