The Great Leader [With Earbuds]

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Author Jim Harrison has won international acclaim for his masterful body of work, including Returning to Earth, Legends of the Fall and over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In his most original work to date, Harrison delivers an enthralling, witty and expertly-crafted novel following one man’s hunt for an elusive cult leader, dubbed “The Great Leader.”

On the verge of retirement, Detective Sunderson begins to investigate a hedonistic cult, which has set up camp ...

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The Great Leader

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Author Jim Harrison has won international acclaim for his masterful body of work, including Returning to Earth, Legends of the Fall and over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In his most original work to date, Harrison delivers an enthralling, witty and expertly-crafted novel following one man’s hunt for an elusive cult leader, dubbed “The Great Leader.”

On the verge of retirement, Detective Sunderson begins to investigate a hedonistic cult, which has set up camp near his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At first, the self-declared Great Leader seems merely a harmless oddball, but as Sunderson and his sixteen-year-old sidekick dig deeper, they find him more intelligent and sinister than they realized. Recently divorced and frequently pickled in alcohol, Sunderson tracks his quarry from the woods of Michigan to a town in Arizona, filled with criminal border-crossers, and on to Nebraska, where the Great Leader’s most recent recruits have gathered to glorify his questionable religion. But Sunderson’s demons are also in pursuit of him.

Rich with character and humor, The Great Leader is at once a gripping excursion through America’s landscapes and the poignant story of a man grappling with age, lost love and his own darker nature.

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Editorial Reviews

Pete Dexter
…30-odd books down the road—his own shelf in the library—and you can still feel the excitement every time [Harrison] pulls something new out of his ear. Which pretty much happens on every page he writes…Pick up the book for yourself, drop it on the floor and wherever it falls open there will be something…good.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Harrison (The English Teacher) offers a chunk of comic backwoods noir marked by more plodding than stalking. Detective Sunderson wallows in “the deep puzzlement of retirement” even as he pursues, on his own dime, a pedophilic cult leader. Known simply as “Dwight,” the quarry promises to unknot for Sunderson the bedeviling connections between sex, religion, and money. But Dwight barely appears on the page, leaving the detective often ruminating on his own distrust of money and spirituality, and obsessing about sex—which he actually gets a fair amount of for an overweight, drunk, sardonic, 64-year-old bachelor, despite his belief that the “biological imperative was a distracting nuisance.” Characters and themes like these pervade the prolific Harrison’s work; no one makes horny geezers so lovable, but some will wish he’d distilled this into the novella form he’s so good at. The story’s motifs of lust and power, sex and death resonate, yet the narrative’s slow progression keeps an otherwise entertaining literary investigation rooted in the oft-frozen ground of the Upper Peninsula. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Perhaps best known for his film-adapted collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall, Harrison is one of the most prolific writers of recent times, with an expansive body of work ranging from poetry (Letters to Yesenin) to children's literature (The Boy Who Ran to the Woods). Set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Harrison's favorite location, this book does not offer the continuing story line of familial heartbreak and reconciliation explored in True North and Returning to Earth, but common themes of alcoholism and loneliness in the Upper Peninsula. Divorced, alcoholic, and recently retired detective Sunderson journeys from Michigan to Nebraska as he tracks a cult and its charismatic leader, whose commitment to evading capture is as strong as Sunderson's commitment to finding him. This cat-and-mouse game between the two main characters is used effectively to explore the intrinsic tensions between the universal truths of justice, religion, and mortality. VERDICT A classic Harrison novel, complete with humorous and introspective characters. [See Prepub Alert, 4/4/11.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
A mountain, a mess and an agonized moralist, Detective Sunderson makes this mock-epic one of the most memorable tales of contemporary master Harrison (In Search of Small Gods, 2009, etc.). Swigging schnapps, feeding his face, sneaking midnight peeks at Mona, the nymphet next door—when it comes to lawmen, Sunderson's seems a Wyatt Burp. But joining the ramshackle lifestyle and tough-guy exterior (he's a dead-ringer for Bobby Duval) is a blazing, obsessive intelligence. Which, just as he's retiring from a 30-year gig on a backwoods Midwest force, fixates on Dwight, a Jim Jones in a tree costume (!) who robs his brainwashed cult members and rapes their underaged daughters. Anyone who deserts him, he says, will be "reincarnated as an amoeba buried in a dog turd." Tracking the on-the-lam menace from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the Arizona wastes, Sunderson gets literally stoned by crazed Dwightniks, has sex with another (atop a woodpile), tangles with deranged desperado Xavier (who slays with an artificial hand), takes a break to visit his own 85-year-old chain-smoking ma and enlists Mona to hack into Dwight's computer. Whew! Yet plot here, however manic, mainly provides excuse for Sunderson's meditations. We get his pet peeves: "the frivolous white canticles of the Beatles," the war in Iraq, Anderson Cooper (who reminds him of a chipmunk) and all pundits who subscribe to "the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking." We get his passion for history, of which he reads reams, the measured assessment of past chaos providing him solace from the present-day version. And, largely, we get minute-by-minute torrent-of-consciousness observations on growing old, as well as ruminations on nature, loyalty and family. Wounds-and-all portrait of a lion in winter, beleaguered but still battling.
The Barnes & Noble Review

The "Great Leader" of Jim Harrison's 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.

Cameron Martin is a columnist with CBS Sports, Comcast SportsNet New England, and Hearst newspapers. From 1996 to 2007, he was a columnist and feature writer for the Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate newspapers in Connecticut. Email:

Reviewer: Cameron Martin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455114085
  • Publisher: Findaway World
  • Publication date: 10/28/2011
  • Format: Other
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Harrison is the author of over thirty-one books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including Legends of the Fall, The Road Home, The English Major, and The Farmer’s Daughter. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and The New York Times. He has earned a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2011

    Not his best

    Story was interesting and characters well developed but the ending left me flat. Seemed like Jim had to get it to the publisher the next day and just ended...

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2012


    Then starclan is g a y because i was promised the same thing, or was it, u will become the mate of the grand leader, i cant remember, its one of them

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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