Rapturously received by critics and enthusiastically embraced by readers, The Great Leader is an enthralling, blackly comic take on the detective story that follows a retired detective in hilarious and bold pursuit of a sinister cult leader.
Detective Sunderson is on the verge of retirement when he begins to investigate a hedonistic cult that 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 unlikely 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 professional and 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, unexpected twists, and Harrison’s trademark wry wit, The Great Leader is at once a gripping American odyssey and the poignant story of a man grappling with age, lost love, and his own darker nature.
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Detective Sunderson walked backward on the beach glancing around now and then to make sure he wasn't going to trip over a piece of driftwood. The wind out of the northwest had to be over fifty knots and the blowing sand stung his face and grated his eyes. It was below freezing and the surf at the river mouth was high and tormented where Lake Superior collided with the strong outgoing river current. The wind and surf were deafening and Sunderson reminded himself how much he disliked Lake Superior other than as something admirable to look at like an attractive calendar. He had been born and raised in the harbor town of Munising and two of his relatives who were commercial fishermen had died at sea back in the fifties bringing grief and disarray to the larger family. The most alarming fact of prolonged local history was the death of 280 people at sea between Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie. How could you like a killer? In his long soon-to-end career with the Michigan State Police he had never met a killer he liked. His ex-wife who had loved even the crudest manifestations of nature thought his feelings about Lake Superior reprehensible but then she had never been held tightly by a sobbing aunt at a funeral. With two sons and two daughters his mother had only room to hold his crippled brother Bobby who had lost a foot in the rail yard of the local pulp mill.
When he turned to take the narrow path back upriver he found a piece of freshly charred wood and the damp blackness came off on his fingers. In his rush to get through the woods to the river mouth and possibly find the remains of the floating pyre he hadn't closely studied the river banks, which he did now with a little pleasure, glad to be out of the wind, the roar of it now just above the thick alders and stunted trees. He was on the track of a cult leader with various aliases, a purported child sex offender, impossible to prosecute as neither the mother nor the twelve-year-old girl would talk to him. He didn't need a lot of aimless paperwork miring up his retirement. Usually such offenders were a furtive uncle, cousin, or neighbor. A cult leader seemed beyond Sunderson's experience.
A half mile farther on he spotted a Phoenix Suns ball cap stuck in a logjam and retrieved it. He managed to get wet to his crotch retrieving the cap, which brought on a fit of shuddering shivers that pinched his temples. There was a smear of blood on the inside brim about which he felt noncommittal. Indeed, on the morning of the day of his retirement party five days later the state lab would determine that the blood was from a raccoon. His quarry, whom he called Dwight, one of seven discovered aliases, was so devious that Sunderson wouldn't have been surprised if it had been elephant blood. The Phoenix Suns ball cap made sense as Dwight possessed two diplomas from the tawdry degree mills of Phoenix, probably phony. The complainant in the sexual abuse charge, the father, had abandoned the cult and moved south to the spawned-out factory city of Flint and could not be found. It seemed obvious that the cult leader was faking his death to deter pursuit.
To still his shivering Sunderson had eaten the last of his baked bean and onion sandwich and taken a strong pull from a flask of schnapps. Of course drinking on duty was highly out of order but he doubted that there was another peace officer within fifty miles of this remote location.
He was tired and cold when he reached the longhouse, which was skillfully constructed of logs. These cult layabouts could have made solid money building summer cabins, he thought. If it weren't a hundred feet long it would have been a nice place to live nestled in a hardwood valley near a creek that emptied into the river. Before he made notes from seventeen witnesses that he considered uniformly unreliable he had made a mental note about the creek for future brook trout fishing should the cult abandon their dwelling with the disappearance of their leader, the Great Leader. Their name not his. The witnesses all looked hung over having had a wake for their leader where they doubtless drank vast amounts of their brackish berry wines, which he had tried on a previous visit. The worst was the blackberry and the best elderberry. He questioned idly what they would do with thirty cords of split hardwood stacked for winter when they abandoned their home.
These couples were packing their decrepit 4WDs: two Broncos and a Suburban missing most of its rusted-out front fender. The females were red-eyed from weeping but fairly attractive — at least by Upper Peninsula standards, which were none too strict — a consistent trait in Dwight's cult members. Sunderson liked to tease the Great Leader about this matter though it startled the adjutants or bodyguards always surrounding G.L. as his subalterns called him. G.L. aka Dwight enjoyed the teasing, pointing out that at the university in Marquette you could tell the U.P. female students from those who came up from downstate because the locals were far chunkier. G.L. was also amused when Sunderson had spit his blackberry wine on the ground thinking it tasted strongly of Robitussin cough syrup.
"What kind of fucking geek would drink this?" Sunderson had asked.
"My people," G.L. had answered, adding that all herbalists knew that blackberries increased sexual energy.
Sunderson nodded to several stragglers on the way to his vehicle parked near the bathhouse, dreading the bonejarring, half dozen two-track miles out to the gravel county road. A certain air of lawlessness was always possible in the U.P. for the simple reason that unless it was a fairly serious matter no cop wanted to pursue it especially if the weather was bad. It was fun to send rookie cops off fifty miles in the winter to break up a fight in a country bar when by the time the bar was reached the fight would be largely forgotten unless weapons were in evidence, rare in the old days but more common in recent years.
A few miles down the bumpy road and two pulls from the schnapps flask plus turning the heater on high and he was at last truly warm. This made him sleepy and he had to pull off on a side road and take a short nap, which turned out to be long enough so that when he awoke the car was cold and the world was dark and a fine sleet beat against the windshield. He felt a slight edge of panic but then it was only six o'clock, which may as well be midnight this far north. A brother-in-law ran a chain of recreational trailer parks in Arizona and Sunderson had been invited to run one of them after his upcoming retirement but the idea nauseated him. He had, however, promised to look over a trailer park when he visited his eighty-seven-year-old mother in a place called Green Valley, Arizona, during the Thanksgiving holiday. Sunderson was nearly computer illiterate but at the office Roxie, the secretary he shared, had looked up Green Valley and it decidedly wasn't very green, especially the beige mountains of mine tailings to the west of the retirement colony.
He pulled off the highway near Marquette and bought a pasty, a Cornish meat pie, for dinner then ended up eating the pasty in his driveway in front of his darkened house thinking the microwave would ruin the crunch of its crust. Previously well trained he had become a slob in the three years since his divorce. He had become so deep in thought that he actually nipped a finger on the last bite of the pasty. He was unsure indeed if the G.L. was a criminal in the sense that there was prosecutable evidence against him. This was his first genuinely interesting case in many years. It had begun when a man had flown up from Bloomfield Hills to Marquette in his private jet and shown Sunderson a piece of paper demonstrating that thirty thousand dollars had been drawn from his daughter's account. His daughter was the "queen" of the G.L.'s enclave. She was free, white, and twenty-five.
Sunderson had no interest in mysteries or detective fiction, those childish recipe books of mayhem, but it was not easy to see that a crime had been committed. Few citizens at large understood the triviality of a detective's job in this remote nonurban area — the city police handled their own pathetic crimes though Sunderson was occasionally called in for a stumper. As a student of history Sunderson favored Hannah Arendt's delicious phrase, "The banality of evil."
Sunderson sat down briefly at his desk to make a few notes but felt dullish after a big whiskey. He usually did his notes before a drink, when he liked to think that his brain was percolating, a sense that his mind was actually carbonated with the details of a case. A daily report to his chief was pro forma but was usually a list of the unproven suppositions before you eventually hit bingo.
1. Noted again that all cult couples have daughters around eleven, twelve, thirteen, or plus. Is Dwight, re: the rumor of sexual abuse, organizing his own breeding stock?
2. All members are closemouthed but will jabber profusely about the levels of spiritual development they wish to attain.
3. I have to find a lady to clean this fucking house top to bottom.
4. Little chance of resolving this case, a thousand to one against before I retire but curiosity has me by the balls. Historically America has always been full of cults, why?
It was to be one of the most horrid nights of his life in mental terms. After another sturdy whiskey he put a large afghan made by his ex-wife over his head and picked out a Netflix ordered by Roxie who monitored his queue. There was a fine-looking young Italian woman riding a bicycle in a skirt, with the skirt blowing up her back revealing a lovely butt in white undies that were drawn up fetchingly in her butt crack. This drew the attention of men she passed including a priest. The priest diverted Sunderson because the previous August there was a tentative charge against a priest for putting his mouth on a boy's penis during a church swimming party but when Sunderson interrogated the boy in the presence of his parents the boy was not absolutely sure it was the priest because there were dozens of other swimmers and the boy admitted the sexual event had happened underwater. The boy's father had stalked out of the room in anger on seeing a generous lawsuit disappear. The father was an insurance man and a well-known local chiseler. Sunderson certainly didn't tell the parents that there had been another complaint against the priest, but then the judgments of millions of dollars offended him, thinking that perhaps ten grand should be tops for an improper blow job or maybe twenty. The boy was 170 pounds and able-bodied and Sunderson couldn't help suspecting the complainant as much as the possible perpetrator.
The sight of the leering priest in the film and the obvious fact that they had needed a wind machine to blow the girl's skirt up her back dissipated Sunderson's nascent hard-on and he slept, waking with a yelp at 3:00 a.m. to a north wind rattling his house windows, also a tree branch cracking. He had lost all of the mental clarity of the day before, the lucid analysis of the hike down the river after the witness's testimony, and now he had become victim of a shit monsoon of dream images of the G.L.'s camp.
The seventeen witnesses had generally agreed that the floating pyre was anywhere from fifty to a hundred yards downstream when the flames appeared and a pistol shot was heard. Sunderson had stood before enough bonfires to know you couldn't see far beyond their brilliant light but in the dream the entire encampment was lit in the manner of those throbbing discos he hated to enter when he searched for a miscreant. It was up to each generation to be duped into lassitude by their own music. The faking of death had become obvious.
His panic on awakening from the night's lurid dreams was mostly caused by being wedged down in a corner of the big leather sofa with the afghan knotted around his face, a gesture toward suffocation. As a man with an extraordinarily ordinary mind the confusion he felt was blasphemous as if he had suddenly lost his arms while driving. The female cult members were dancing naked to tom-toms but were frightening rather than sexy and what was Roxie doing among them? Sunderson and Roxie met three times a month at his place for sex but she would park two blocks away and walk with her chow dog down the alley at night to keep their secret intact because she was married. A cult member was also roasting Sunderson's dog Walter on an open fire though the dog had been dead several years. Oh how he missed Walter. He fully expected his mind to clear with retirement but as it neared it was apparent that it would take a while.
He walked out on the front porch in his undershirt to feel the bracing sanity of being cold. It took less than a minute and he was pleased to see that a heavy oak limb had fallen on the newish Chevrolet Tahoe of the jerk across the street who was a swindling broker currently keeping a low profile. Back in the house he made a plate of Italian sausage and fried eggs. Resuming his Netflix he used a lot of his home-pickled horseradish root under the assumption that indigestion was a preferable reality to his dream life. Now the Italian girl was naked on her bed and said "ouch" when she plucked one of her pubic hairs after which she began to masturbate. It was electrifying despite his almost immediate acid reflux. Evidently Italian sausage and horseradish held unsympathetic qualities. It was time for a Gas-X pill and a tender nightcap of Canadian whiskey. He would save the rest of the movie for the hour before Roxie made her next stealthy night visit. Both of them were of Scandinavian parentage and favored an orderly adultery regularly scheduled every ten days. He would stand on his back porch and she would come down the alley on foot in inclement weather or on her pink snowmobile in winter. She was a member of a women's snowmobile club called the Snow Queens and was pissed off when he said the group's name illustrated the general lack of imagination in the Marquette area. He loathed snowmobiles referring to them as "crotch rockets." He also didn't care for one of her favorite sexual positions which was to sit nude on his clothes dryer turned to "cotton sturdy high" to feel the warm vibrations. He was 5' 9" and had to stand on a low stool for proper contact and feared pitching over backward at climax. Afterward she would cozy up on the sofa in his terry-cloth robe, smoke a number of Kools, and drink a Bud Light, and they would watch the eleven o'clock news. In contrast, on a trip to Italy with his wife he had been absurdly and elegantly stimulated by the draped forms of Renaissance women in paintings. Sexuality had so many layers and those at the bottom were pathetic indeed.
He tried to sleep but it was hopeless. The grimaces on the faces of the naked dancing women were utterly unlike any he had seen in his waking life except on a fourteen-year-old girl over in the Keweenaw who had shot an uncle who had been abusing her. She had a crazed glare and could not stop laughing. She used a 12-gauge shotgun with No. 8s in his lower abdomen, turning into red putty his offending organ and the surrounding area. There was no real effort at prosecution except for formalities because her rectum had to be surgically repaired. At the time he wondered what chance she had for a normal life if such a thing existed though now, six years later, she was playing basketball at a small college downstate and was a premed major. This said nothing about the state of her mind but Sunderson remembered so clearly looking up "maenad," the mythological women given to tearing men into pieces. Oddly, the most awkward thing about the abused murderer was her utter beauty.
He made coffee at 4:00 a.m. and went to the study, a literal cave of books that used to be in the basement but had been moved up to the former dining room after the divorce. His ex-wife, Diane, had joked that his book buying each month exceeded their mortgage payment which was only two hundred and fifty dollars. She had worked as an administrator at the large regional hospital and they had lived well on their combined salaries, no longer true for him alone but he didn't care because he had his books, nearly all historical in nature. He had been a brilliant student of history at Michigan State in East Lansing. He had been strongly encouraged by his professors to go to graduate school but he was mortally homesick for the Upper Peninsula, especially in May when the homesickness would become a palpable ache in the throat. He applied as a courtesy and received a graduate assistantship but one day on his way to visit a professor in faculty housing he had passed the Michigan State Police headquarters and stopped on impulse. In his Munising youth everyone thought the state police were zippy and along with being a UPS driver it was one of the best jobs in the U.P. He adamantly rejected the idea of teaching because he didn't want to be trapped indoors during his favorite brook trout month which was May. Other than history, brook trout proved to be his only other lifelong obsession. It was mostly their lovely remote habitats, some of the smallest and unobtrusive creeks and springs, and beaver ponds.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Great Leader"
Copyright © 2011 Jim Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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...
I thought this was a great book, one of the best Harrison has ever written in my opinion. Harrison's protagonist, Sunderson, will resonate with many who are nearing, or have just gone into "retirement."
I stopped reading this one. I've read and enjoyed Harrison over the years but after 150 pages of looking at every woman and imaging her ass, I had enough.
Once again, Harrison turns on his magical writing skills and spins in a very entertaining read about a retired policeman from the Upper peninsula of Michigan....his adventures are painstakingly described, and the situational reality of his effort makes his writings so enjoyable. I have only recently discovered this author, and I am indeed a fan.
This is my 7th Jim Harrison novel. His recent focus on the aging alcoholic and my previous experience with his writings is what has caused me to judge this novel as less than his best. If you have never read him, then you might find this book more entertaining than I did. Of course anything by Jim Harrison will always be jam packed with his observations about society and the hypocrisy of our American way of life. I do find that his portrayal of the 65 year old main character as always being able to attract young women so far from reality as to impact the credibility of his character. If the book is viewed as a compilation of interesting people and an entertaining page turner then I recommend it. As a realistic view of something that can actually occur, it is closer to fantasy.
The protagonist of this book is truly loathsome: an old alcoholic socialist who routinely peeps at underaged girls (perfectly legal, the idiot author assures us, since he's peeping from his own home). Somehow, this doesn't make me feel better about it. I literally disagree with every one of this character's philosophies and thus find his eternal musings a tremendous bore, occasiinally inrespersed with outrage at his disgusting drunken behavior. There is some small degree of humor, but not enough to justify giving this repulsive old lecher star billing in anything