The Great Leader by Jim Harrison, and the nerdiest of mid-life crises

Loved Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader, described by its author as a “faux mystery.” It reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, except it is much more approachable. Here a recently retired detective in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is tracking a cult leader that he wasn’t able to arrest when he was an active duty officer. But the book is barely at all the tracking, and more of a forum for Harrison to riff hilariously on crime, religion, sex and Native American culture. I was tempted to fault The Great Leader for what I would call a “Last Vegas” problem—the older protagonist here, like the leads of that movie, prove irresistible to all young women they encounter. I would guess Harrison, though, is more than in on the joke.

While I was enjoying the book, I also became frustrated because I was asking myself, how the hell is it that I had never heard of The Great Leader—or, more importantly, its author, Jim Harrison—before? Harrison has published more than 31 titles, including Legends of the Fall, which was made into a big Hollywood movie, and he is also the winner of a Guggenheim fellow, among other honors. And yet until a couple months ago I had never heard of him.

I am 46, and I think of myself as a reader, even though I don’t read in the way that people who make a living in the books universe have been doing. (I worked in journalism full-time for 17 years and still practice the craft, when the wind conditions are right). But still, I was an English major at college. For my adult life I have been always reading some book—even if it has been in between work, sports, movies, television, exercising and interacting with the people in my life, the time-consuming “loved ones.”

Meanwhile, the stack of books I would like to read grows ever larger. Every week in the NYTimes Book Review I see at least one and usually several books that interest me. (That’s how I came to The Great Leader. I picked it up this book after reading a review of its sequel, The Big Seven, in late February, and I decided to begin with the original.) So after reading The Great Leader, I now need to get to The Big Seven. And in addition to new releases, there’s the books I see on awards lists that I want to check out—I’ve just started Phil Klay’s much-decorated Deployment, and so far, so great, and I want to get to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, among many others. On top of those, there’s all the books from years past that I want to get to. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the final book in Marilynne Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, the University of Chicago Press’ Donald Westlake nonfiction collection, more by James Lee Burke, Val McDermid, Patricia Highsmith, Orhan Pamuk….

It’s the nerdiest kind of mid-life crisis. Too many books, not enough time.


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