The Great Leader

The “Great Leader” of Jim Harrison’s latest novel is an outdoorsy, oversexed cult leader who preys on underage women. He uses various aliases, including Dwight Janus and King David, and has come to the attention of a retiring Michigan State Police detective named Sunderson — himself an outdoorsy, oversexed Robert Duvall look-alike who goes by his own alias of sorts: “His unused first name, Simon, only served to remind him of the Mother Goose verse, ‘Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair.’ He signed his name S. Sunderson and no one he knew had the guts to call him Simon, except his mother.”

The mirroring between Sunderson, whose obsessive pursuit of his quarry drives the story along, and this mysterious figure, is the discomfiting heart of this novel. For one thing, as we learn early in the story, the divorced Sunderson has been unable to stop himself from spying on his attractive sixteen-year-old neighbor, Mona.  Then there’s his retirement party at a woodland cabin: Sunderson, who “smoked and drank heavily” and whose “cholesterol always hovered around three hundred,” has drunken sex against a woodpile with the woman who was hired to provide adult entertainment — and he does this in clear view of guests.

A number of men waved from the cabin windows but he didn’t wave back now feeling a rush of embarrassment. Oh well, he thought, and when he managed to make his way back in the cabin the men absurdly sang, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Sunderson poured a tumbler full of whiskey and drank it with another bowl of caramel ice cream after which he chewed on a bloody beef bone.

This is quintessential Harrison, the man’s man author of Legends of the Fall and Dalva, whom Salon once dubbed “the poet laureate of appetite.” In the space of a few sentences we have public sex, male bonding, hard alcohol, a sugary dessert, and a little gratuitous carnivorism thrown in for good measure. Without its proper context, this passage might be right at home in a memoir about the court of Caligula. Instead it’s about a mild-mannered cop who’s become pickled with alcohol since his ex-wife, Diane, left him. (“Life without a woman to temper your stupidities was difficult indeed.”)

Sunderson admits he’s no saint, but he figures there are worse people in the world. People like the Great Leader, a purported sex-offender-turned-cult-mastermind who’s started religions in four places in the United States and three more in other countries including Canada, France, and Mexico.

[Sunderson] had heard that Dwight made three hour speeches in the manner of Fidel Castro. Dwight had told him that monotheism was destroying the world and that his people worshipped dozens of gods like many ancient societies.

The religion he’s selling in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan mines Native American culture, too, which further aggravates Sunderson, whose best friend, Marion, is a mixed-blood Indian. The Great Leader is an elusive figure, and Sunderson pursues him from Michigan to Arizona and eventually to Nebraska. The pursuit permits time for Sunderson to ponder the attraction of cults; to meet and interview members who would turn over their life savings — and their adolescent daughters — to a leader whose teachings are nebulous and seemingly deranged: “[As] a student of history Sunderson had been mystified since college with the particularities of the relationship between money, religion, and sex — in fact, obsessed.”

The retired detective has never had much use for money; his lifelong obsession is with fishing for brook trout. As for religion, he’s an agnostic (“Again he thought that there was no real conclusive evidence for much of anything”). But sex — or the “biological imperative” — is a preoccupation he can relate to.

Sunderson, who has never learned to use a computer, has to lean on the technical wizardry of his neighbor, Mona, to track the Great Leader. She thinks Sunderson is a handsome older man, and her lack of a proper father figure is supposed to account for her sexual interest in a senior citizen. Sunderson seems to be able to explain his swordsmanship by the mere fact he resembles the actor Duvall — an element that might be more easily digestible in the 1970s, but one that would seem to carry less freight in the second decade of the twenty-first century. If his conquests sometimes strain credulity, Sunderson’s swiveling fixations on religion, sex, and money move the narrative with thought-provoking entertainment. “My job as a janitor trying to sweep up the detritus of society is over,” Sunderson writes in his notebook. “My grand finale will be to get the Great Leader in prison but this might not be possible.”

He isn’t sure if he’s up to the task of tracking the slippery cult leader. But he can’t stop himself from trying. In retirement, it gives him purpose. Appetite, it turns out, will only take you so far.