Sunday, October 9, 2011

Not a Great “Leader”

“There’s a reason Shakespeare kills off his characters at the end of his tragedies,” I told my daughter this morning. “What’s that, Dad?” she asked. I couldn’t rightly say. I only know that I was irritated, having reached the final chapters of Jim Harrison’s new novel, The Great Leader, and hoping that someone would kill someone, please.

This was my first encounter with Harrison, who has been compared with Faulkner, Hemingway, and Willa Cather. “Though famous for fiction,” his Wiki entry notes, “Harrison considers himself, first and foremost, a poet.”  I think Harrison should consider himself a stand-up comic worthy of the Boston circuit, where the easiest target for cheap humor is religion, and the Catholic Church is the bullseye. The Great Leader is filled with loose thinking and raw laughs about religion, and it takes liberal potshots at the Church, priests, and their reported misdoings.

Harrison’s hero, Sunderson, is a newly retired Michigan state trooper who picks up the scent of a cult leader who has been preying on underage girls. Yet Dwight, or Darius, or King David, as the sicko self-appointed Moses calls himself, is only the MacGuffin in this novel. Yeah, okay, the chase for D/D/D finally ends, but the real subject of The Great Leader is Sunderson, his proclivities and prejudices.

Sunderson is addicted to alcohol and obsessed with female bottoms, which he never misses a chance to ogle, without age discrimination. Although he is a 65-year-old reprobate at loose ends, who “had become a slob in the three years since his divorce,” Sunderson should be granted some moral high ground, because after 200 pages he finally wakes up to the irony that he is chasing a child-molester while he himself is playing peeping Tom to an exhibitionistic teenage girl next door. Oh, and by the end of the book he has decided to switch from whiskey to wine. People do change! Hallelujah!

What doesn’t change are the circles in which his mind spins. Sunderson thinks obsessively about three topics—sex, money, and religion—as though Harrison were leading us to some grand synthesis that explains each in terms of the others. In the first chapter, Sunderson writes summary notes to himself about the Great Leader he is tracking, and the last promises an interesting discusssion:

Historically America has always been full of cults, why?

Not only do we never learn why (or what Harrison/Sunderson thinks are the reasons) but by the end of the book, Sunderson’s summaries have devolved into laughable parodies of thought.

But along the way, he still speculates, without result, about sex, money, and religion. Here are excerpts taken from throughout the book:
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. . . .
He couldn’t help but presume that Dwight understood the conflict between religion and sex and had simply decided to meld the two. . . .
“I’m investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex,” Sunderson joked . . . 
“My hobby has always been history,” Sunderson began slowly. “I became interested in the relationship between, religion, money, and sex.” . . . 
On the way out he looked at a display of bowling balls, which reminded him of Xavier saying that religion, sex, and money aren’t separable. He was likely right. A human is as indivisible as a bowling ball, a biological knot like any other creature, a distressing notion but then so was much of life . . .

And so on . . . 
Reading these Big Themes repeated over and over, one might expect a thoughtful synthesis, but none is forthcoming. The bowling ball analogy is about as deep as the conversation gets. But meanwhile the Catholic Church is dragged through the mud (no quotes needed here, use your imagination) and—perhaps more troublingly—the cult of Dwight/Darius/David is allowed to stand in as a model system for all religions, from the great monotheisms to the latest crackpot scheme for seducing girls and buying Rolls Royces.

Now, if my wife reads this review, I already know what she’ll say: But you were laughing out loud all the way through that book! And of course she will be right. She always is. So let me add this final note to balance my critique:

If you enjoy the thought of listening to a horny old alcoholic riffing on religion, money, and sex for 288 pages, one blessed with a remarkably active penis for a 65-year-old and further blessed with Jim Harrison’s poetic abilities, you may find The Great Leader entertaining. I found comedian Lenny Clark entertaining when I heard him a couple of years ago at a private party at Fenway Park—right up until he launched his second slam on priests and nuns. That was about two minutes into his spiel. Since he was booked for a half hour, I figured I knew what I was in for and I walked out. 

The anti-Catholicism—without any true judgment—isn’t quite so thick in The Great Leader, but as my daughter told me in another context, if you read this book, you may want to wear a clothespin on your nose, due to the body odor.

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