Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reading Journal: The Great Leader, by Jim Harrison (2011)

A strange thing, this, a novel with a subtitle on its inside cover page, ("A Faux Mystery"). It's a smart move by the author, as he's writing about a retired detective who shares some traits with Philip Marlowe, but others - the worst ones - with Charles Bukowski's alter-ego, Hank Chinaski. You discover just how much this story resists the usual detective narrative, and as you follow the anti-hero's quest to bring down a cult leader who preys on underage girls, you realize it's about something much larger: man and his place in the world. Harrison belongs among the last true Naturalists, bringing the landscapes - nay, ecosystems - of Michigan, Arizona and Nebraska to life beautifully and showing us the challenges they present to a species now seemingly tied up in the protagonist's friend's axis of evil: religion, sex and money. And for his part, when asked about his own faith, our hero gives us this, one of the more inspired paragraphs I've ever read:

"I thought it over quite a bit in the Nogales hospital when I was trying to organize an interest in continuing my life. Of course the drugs helped but they're mostly a lid over the pain like a manhole cover and you remain aware of the surge of pain underneath. Anyway I'd keep making a list of my favourite brook trout creeks, nine of them in fact. Also my favourite landscapes, maybe half a dozen, two of them from boyhood on Grand Island, and also that long gully you showed me west of here. I'd go over these places in my memory for hours and was surprised how well I remembered them right down to the minutest detail. The day I left the hospital it occurred to me that these places were the location of whatever religion I had. This started when I was a boy. In these places I never think of anything except where I am, sometimes for hours. I remembered that Mother said that when you pray you're not supposed to think about anything else, which was a trick I never could manage but can in these places."    

I've met some Harrison fans before, and he has earned a National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim in his career, but for a writer so good, it's astonishing what a low profile he keeps. His latest could wear the mantle of Great American Novel with ease.

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