Book 42: The Great Leader by Jim Harrison
Book 48: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Valedictory novels from two of America’s great writers.
Valedictory for different reasons. The Great Leader, in which an aging cop comes to grips with his mortality, clearly feels like a farewell from Harrison.
The Beginner’s Goodbye displays the waning of Tyler’s considerable literary gifts. The quirky characters whose stories added up to something meaningful and poignant are now just oddballs without depth whose stories are without interest or significance.
Set in Michigan’s U.P., The Great Leader is the story of Detective Sunderson. Despite being recently retired from the police force, Sunderson is in pursuit of the leader of a religious cult who is preying sexually on underage girls – the Great Leader of the novel’s title.
The story line is a McGuffin, incidental to what Harrison wants to accomplish. The Great Leader isn’t a thriller or police procedural. Instead, Sunderson’s pursuit of the Great Leader provides a back drop for the story by a man confronted by his own mortality, consumed by the big questions of life as well as the loss of vitality and virility.
Sunderson is clearly a stand-in for Harrison, who is approaching 75.
The Great Leader is the kind of novel we’ve come to expect from Harrison – wise and warm with an occasional observation on the state of current society that will produce a guffaw.
It’s not his best work, but a fine addition to an impressive body of work.
I’d like to say the same for Tyler. I’ve been a fan since the early ‘70s. Morgan’s Passing and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are among my favorites novels. But those books are decades old. The Beginner’s Goodbye isn’t in the same class.
Crippled since childhood, Aaron works at his family’s vanity press, which has a modest reputation for itsr line of “Beginners” books (think the Dummies series), i.e. The Beginner’s Childbirth, The Beginner’s Legal Reference.
Aaron’s wife Dorothy is killed when a tree crashes into their house, yet days later Dorothy reappears – to Aaron. No one else sees her. The reconstituted Dorothy is Aaron’s grief manifesting itself as a hallucination.
The question is how long will the illusory Dorothy haunt Aaron’s life? Will Aaron ultimately break free from the grip of grief and find a new love and a new life?
None of those questions matter much. This is a tepid novel, lacking the quirky inspiration and insight that made Tyler’s early novels such delightful reads.