The Great Good Geezer aka The Mozart of the Plains

23 Sep

The publication of a new opus by Jim Harrison is always a cause for celebration in my world. His new novel The Great Leader (Grove)is subtitled “A faux mystery” lets you know from the get-go that the irrepressible old geezer has his own take on the mystery genre.In this case, the soon to be retired Detective Sunderson is on the hunt for a cult leader (hence the novel’s title) traipsing from Michigan to Arizona to Nebraska (all, by the way, locales with which Harrison is preternaturally familiar) trying to determine whether the Great Leader was a harmful threat or just another goofy evangelist. It is, of course a bittersweet story as the befuddled Sunderson has his own foibles and quirks to confront.

Tom Bissell, whom I have forgiven for his book length apologia for video games, was sent to Montana by Outside magazine to “profile” Jim Harrison (this may be the spearhead of a journalistic hejira for American media that have excelled at failing to give Harrison his proper due)produced a wonderful précis on Harrison, aptly entitled “The Last Lion.”. Here’s a snippet:

As I pulled into the driveway, the man himself emerged from the cabin he uses as a writing studio. “Look around!” he called over. “What don’t you see?”

“What?” I called back.

“Any other houses,” he said. He was wearing a fleece vest, unbelted pants, and rubber boots. With his cowlicky hair and potbelly, he looked a bit like a friendly garden gnome. When I complimented his view of the mountains, Harrison said, “They’re full of grizzly bears that will kill you.”

His dogs came running up: Mary, an elderly black cocker spaniel, and Zil, a squat-legged Labrador retriever with a stick clamped between her teeth. “Don’t throw her stick,” Harrison told me. “Under any circumstances. It will never end.” Harrison looked at Zil—wet and filthy from a recent dip in the Harrisons’ pond—and shook his head. “She’s such a fuckhead,” he said. “But she’s a free woman. I adore her.”
Linda came out after the dogs and regarded the thermal Patagonia shirt Harrison was wearing beneath his vest. It looked as though it had been recently used as a barmaid’s rag. “That shirt is filthy,” she said.

“I know,” Harrison said. “It must be washed. Eventually.”

As warm and astute as Bissell’s paean to Harrison is, nobody (except his close friend Tom McGuane) can tell his own story better than JIm Harrison does in his warmblooded and bemused 2002 memoir, Off to The Side (Grove Press). Here’s a New York Times citation:

I’m making the chronology all tidy but it’s not in the book. This is a sprawling, impressionistic memoir as roundabout as one of the author’s famous road trips. Some of his side trips pan out, others don’t. Harrison can yammer embarassingly about Movie Stars I Have Known, then drop a brilliant line that suggests the stargazing may stem from his lifelong obsession with bold characters. ”Maybe they are like other people only more so,” he writes, ”as if seven identical people could be contained within a single skin.”

”It’s hard to step back from the incalculable messiness of life,” he writes, wrestling with the fits and starts of his early adulthood. ”In fact, the messiness is your life into which you hope to install a perceptible narrative line.” The end of the narrative line in ”Off to the Side” finds Jim Harrison moving to Montana with his wife (of 43 years, father-in- law!), still working. ”I don’t feel an ounce of ‘closure’ about finishing this memoir,” he growls.

Currently reading Confidence Man by Ron Siskind (Harpers)

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