The Great Leader

  • Jim Harrison
  • Grove Press
  • 288 pp.

On the cusp of retirement, a Michigan State Police detective chases after a mysterious cult leader in this new novel by the author of "Legends of the Fall."

 Reviewed by Fred Haefele

Whenever I sit down with a Jim Harrison book, I know a couple things in advance: that we’re going to eat well, that he’ll turn us onto his favorite cool books and that periodically, like his heroes, we’re going to want to have a drink. Profound but raunchy, hilarious but illuminated, Harrison’s best work is invariably rich, dark and delicious.

The Great Leader follows the adventures of a particularly well-read Michigan State cop named Sunderson. Upon the eve of his retirement, for a variety of reasons — to stave off boredom, to stave off obsessing about the ex-wife he’s still in love with and to stave off his obsession with the impish neighbor girl, Mona, who helps him get online — Sunderson investigates whether or not a local cult leader faked his own death after seducing the 12-year-old daughter of one of his biggest donors. Particularly nebulous in its beliefs, the cult espouses a lifestyle of neo-primitive variety, one that features hunting and drumming, a caveman diet and plenty of freestyle rustic sex. The tribe is headed by a mercurial guru named Dwight, aka The Great Leader, or just G.L for short.

The G.L., as it turns out, has an uncanny ability to squeeze money from the faithful, screw whomever he chooses and still pull up stakes one step ahead of the law. In fact, he can move the whole outfit overnight to another county, state or country. When Dwight leaves Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to relocate his followers in the Arizona backcountry, the aging but irrepressibly randy Sunderson follows the cult to ground and promptly gets stoned — literally stoned — for his trouble and for his failure to recognize just how out of his element he is in this country. Recuperating in the hospital, he has plenty of time to reflect on all of this, noting that “he felt untraveled because, simply enough, he was. He knew an approximately 300 by 500 mile area of the Upper Peninsula but nowhere else. The spring before, he had picked up a prisoner in Grand Rapids and managed to get a little lost …”

Nevertheless, Sunderson persists, doggedly “investigating the evil connection between religion, money and sex.” Along the way, in addition to the stoning, he survives a compromising dalliance with Mona’s older girlfriend, a dalliance with his ICU nurse who happens to be the wife of a vicious bisexual narcotraficante, and finally, a close call with an older woman who, except for a few mental problems, bears a disturbing resemblance to his ex. Meanwhile, he is nearly eaten alive by the disapproving but well-intentioned remnants of his own family — a woeful sister, a hard-drinking mother and a couple booster-type salesmen brothers-in-law, all of whom abandoned the Upper Peninsula winters for the fabled endless summer of the American Southwest.

In spite of the many complications, Harrison moves the story briskly enough, though the actual pursuit of Dwight is occasionally sidetracked by something more urgent. You never know when Harrison might veer off into a recipe for sea bass with lime and garlic, or to tell you what goes into a Mexican tripe slumgullion. Or the problem with singing cowboys. Or finally, to the regular monitoring of Sunderson’s love stick, which seems to function as a barometer for the detective’s late mid-life élan vital. But mostly with Harrison, you never know when you’re going to be treated to a line that’s truly marvelous, as in: “the aging process was linear, with the inevitability of gravity but our thinking and behavior tended to occur in clusters, knots that wound and unwound themselves …”; or like Sunderson’s conclusion that “ sex, religion and money are knotted together and impenetrable, like the structure of a bowling ball.”

In any event, whether we’re sipping Clos de la Roche from polished stemware or nipping Four Roses from a sweaty hip-flask, this book is both wise and full of fun. Mostly though, I found it a particularly good depiction of the kind of multitasking mental sobriety test that people in late mid-life confront each passing day. Still, I think the real mystery in this book is: what comes next? Both for an aging Upper Peninsula Michigan dick, peering into the void of retirement, and for all of us, peering uneasily into the void of the new millennium.

Fred Haefele’s writings have appeared in Epoch, Missouri Review, Prism International, Outside, the New York Times Magazine,, Wired, Big Sky Journal, Newsday, American Heritage and others. He is the author of the award-winning memoir, Rebuilding the Indian and the recently published Extremeophilia. Visit his website at

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