Tag Archives: The Great Leader

Pete (Dexter) on Jim (Harrison)

5 Oct

As the world of storytelling and literature currently stand—small but steady trickles in the great shit stream of info-tain-advertorial, we must take our gems from whatever dark places they shine. In today’s instance, the New York Times Book Review is to be applauded for departing from its well-worn path of siccing/assigning dyspeptic and petulant authors to review their peers and betters—and we are presented with the delightful occasion of Pete Dexter musing on Jim Harrison and his new opus.

A pleasure that could only be equaled by Harrison meditating on Dexter. Or Thomas McGuane reflecting on one or the other or both. Or the publication of the 30 something year correspondence between Harrison and McGuane. But I digress.

Though a National Book Award (Paris Trout), Pete Dexter who has continued to gladden readers with a string of audacious and rip roaringly amusing novels (and some quality screenwriting, the screenplay for an excellent iteration of Paris Trout and Lee Takahara’s Mullholland Falls) is not a literary household word commensurate with his worthy oeuvre. Not the least his 2003 novel Train, set that rivals Walter Moseley and James Elroy in capturing with a cinematic verisimilitude (the Barry Levinson film adaptation of Train,sadly, was never turned around) the tone and color early 50s LA.

His last opus Spooner (Grand Central) ought to have come with a label warning of the risk of laughter induced fits of incontinence

Carol See writes:

… Dexter takes a look at himself, implicitly admitting that he’s a little on the high-strung side, to put it mildly. He attempts — if I read him correctly — to answer the question: What makes a person turn out to be like Pete Dexter? It’s a hard question for a person trained as a journalist who’s used to looking outward, or for a man of action who prefers boxing to many other pastimes. How do you look inside and come up with an answer that makes sense? (The project must have been hard. The author writes that the book went 3 1/2 years beyond its publication deadline. “When you come across sentences you particularly don’t like, keep in mind that I probably didn’t like them either.”

Nevertheless, here’s a novel that’s different from anything Dexter has written before. His namesake, Spooner, born in 1956, comes second in a cluster of four siblings. His mother is a martyr whose family lost its fortune in the Great Depression, and his father died too young for Spooner to know him. Most of the first 50 pages are given over to describing the back story of a paragon — the saintly man who became Spooner’s stepfather — who makes a hardscrabble living for his new family as a teacher in the hardscrabble town of Milledgeville, Ga., all the while bearing ill-concealed dismay and sometimes contempt from Spooner’s mother…

This is strange material for a man who wrote unsparingly of the grossness of smallpox in “Deadwood,” the merciless rape and destruction of a little girl in “Paris Trout” and the eating of raw flamingos in “Train.” It’s new ground and a new tone. Jocose, ironic, even cheery. (The author’s photo shows the man smiling!) Dexter seems to look at this life as something of a tall tale, and he’s right — there are sentences that don’t seem to be exactly his. The book has a Mark Twain feel to it: Of journalists, Spooner remarks: “Some of them drank too much after work and threatened to write books…”

Currently reading The Foreigners by MAxine Swann (Riverhead)

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)

Jim Harrison Keeps on Rolling.

20 Jun

Every serious reader—that is a reader for whom reading is one of the great joys of life—has a few authors that are almost automatic additions to the To Be Read pile(s) when such authors’ newest title is published. Jim Harrison is one such writer for me and happily I just received his forthcoming novel The Great Leader (Grove Press, due to be available in October 2011.)

Among the qualities that I admire in HArrison are his humility and humor and a wonderfully digressive style that engages in a smooth and graceful manner. For example, in The Great Leader, Sunderson a Michigan State Trooper detective explains why he has changed his mind about a young colleague:

…The entertainment was arranged by a younger officer whom Sunderson had originally disliked but then sympathized with over his rejection by the FBI because of a college prank. The FBI had altogether too many stiffs who couldn’t think, in that pathetic euphemism, out of the box. A little old lady FBI agent had seen 9/11 coming and had she worn a necktie thousands of livesmight have been saved not to speak of the grotesque governmental aftermath wherein the constitution was sadly bruised and the fraternity boys realized their ambitions about torturing brown people. There were thousands of bright career tracks for sadists who knew no more about the MIddle East than a Lubbock insurance adjustor.

Stay tuned, I expect that in the future I will indulge numerous opportunities to regale visitors to this terra incognito with citations from and comments on Harrison’s work.