- - Friday, February 24, 2012

By Jim Harrison
Grove Press, $24 329 pages

Jim Harrison, one of America’s premier novelists, is definitely not going gentle into that good night. In his last several novels, Mr. Harrison, 74, has featured old horn toads who sound suspiciously like … himself. And they hook up with women who are young enough to be, not their daughters but their granddaughters. Talk about a fantasy life. More to the point is that the books are as good as ever.

While Mr. Harrison may be one of the last to fit the traditional role of macho male novelist, a line that started with Hemingway and ran through Mailer, Jones and James (“Deliverance”) Dickey, it’s not a particularly good fit. For one thing, Mr. Harrison is many other things. He’s a poet, a gourmand and a clear-eyed objective observer of American maleness, circa 2012.

In “The Great Leader,” his 17th work of fiction (to go on the same shelf with his 11 books of poetry, two of essays, and “Off to the Side,” a memoir) he takes on the classic genre of crime thriller, but, with his usual twist of wry, he subtitles it a “Faux Mystery.” And that it is, delightfully.

Det. Sunderson (he evidently doesn’t need, or rate, a first name) has just retired after a very long career with the Michigan State Police, where he served in the Upper Peninsula (the U.P. to locals). His parents, and later his wonderful wife, wanted him to get his Ph.D. and teach history, which he reads avidly on a daily basis, but after a few years he found he liked being a cop. But only if it was in the U.P.; not for him the wilds of Detroit, where he was sent on occasion and that scared him silly, big and tough as he is.

Sunderson truly loves nature and women, and, to almost-but-not-quite-the-same degree, alcohol. To him, nature means fishing for brook trout, camping and taking very long and often very hard walks, preoccupations that are often best enjoyed alone, which was one of the main reasons why, three years ago, his wonderful wife divorced him. Since then, when he’s not trouting about he’s floundering around, and the several people who love him are worried.

What saves Sunderson, and provides the plot for this faux mystery, is his ongoing concern about a fringe group that had been operating in his area. The detective believes that in addition to bilking goony rich kids out of their inherited wealth, the guru - Dwight, aka the Great leader - has been “initiating” young girls into his sexual harem, and the younger the better. When the group moves to Arizona, the now-retired Sunderson tracks its members down - and is almost killed for his efforts.

Does he back down, get scared off, give up? Hardly. Mr. Harrison’s recent novels remind one of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies. Clint may be old(er) and gray, but he still gets his man, as does Det. Sunderson, but, unlike the aged Dirty Harry, not without a good bit of help from his friends.

His best male friend is Marion, an Indian and fellow cop; his best female friend is Mona, his (of course voluptuous) 16-year-old neighbor who puts on a good show when Sunderson goes into his Peeping Tom act. Fortunately, like Sunderson, she’s quite bright, and, unlike him, she’s very Internet savvy. Acting on her leads, and using detecting skills honed over his 40 year career, he zeroes in on the group and its Great Leader.

These days the plot of a Jim Harrison novel is little more than a handy framework for displaying his many-splendored thoughts about a wild assortment of people and things. In this book it’s the sex-money-child exploitation trifecta that interests him most. And he wails on it throughout.

While he is venting all that spleen, he treats the reader to some of the best unself-conscious nature writing to be found in contemporary books, nonfiction as well as fiction

The “faux” part comes in when Mr. Harrison has his hero deconstruct the romanticism of crime fiction. Oops. “Deconstruct” is just the kind of word Jim Harrison hates, along with “iconic,” “closure,” “embedded,” and “making it” (see page 93.) Here’s what he has a character say about crime: “No surprise but the TV networks, the news media, and I imagine most writers have got it wrong. Crime is not interesting, it’s pathetically predictable. Nothing has changed since Cain slew Abel. Greed, jealousy, mental instability, and economic deprivation remain the prime ingredients.”

None of the content of this entertaining novel should come as a surprise. The reader is warned by the epigraph, which is from John A. McGlynn, Jr.’s book “An Old Man’s Rules for Hitchhiking”: “My sealed orders were to determine the shape of the world. The final report is that all presumptions are in error.”

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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