The Great Leader
A Faux Mysteryby Jim Harrison
A black-comic detective novel in the vein of No Country for Old Men, Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader follows a retired detective in hilarious and bold pursuit of a sinister cult leader.
Best-selling and beloved author Jim Harrison has won international acclaim for his masterful body of work, including Returning to Earth, Legends of the Fall, and over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In his newest and most original work to date, Harrison delivers an enthralling, witty, and expertly crafted novel that follows one man’s hunt for an elusive cult leader, dubbed the Great Leader.
Detective Sunderson is on the verge of retirement when he begins to investigate a hedonistic cult, which 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 that is filled with professional and criminal border-crossers, then 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 and incredibly funny, Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader is at once a gripping excursion through America’s landscapes and the poignant story of a man grappling with age, lost love, and his own darker nature.
“The Great Leader is precisely what readers will want reading it to be: enthralling, exhilarating, provocative.” —The Globe and Mail
“A wild ride . . . [and] a thoroughly enjoyable tale of religion, sex and money. . . . this is not your grandfather’s detective novel.” —Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times
“Enjoyable . . . The best moments come when the detective loses the trail and looks up to find, in Harrison’s precise and powerful descriptions, the landscapes that surround him, where religion, money, and sex disappear, and ‘a creek is more powerful than despair.’” —The New Yorker
“America’s greatest living writer . . . After 34 books, endless Hemingway comparisons, and too many battles with gout, legendary author Jim Harrison is unsurpassed at chronicling man’s relationship with wilderness. . . . The Harrison Legend . . . has only grown. . . . The Great Leader is hugely enjoyable—Harrison is probably incapable of writing a novel that is not enjoyable. The language remains stunning.” —Tom Bissell, Outside Magazine
“Profound but raunchy, hilarious but illuminated, Harrison’s best work is invariably rich, dark and delicious. . . . This book is both wise and full of fun.” —The Washington Independent Review of Books
“Harrison is still writing sentences that make you yearn for more. . . . The Great Leader [is] a dark, wry story about a man troubled by loss and life’s big questions . . . a man’s man in the very best sense of the expression—a man we’d love to camp out with if we could only put up a tent.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Harrison’s story of an aging cop trying to tie up a final case is much more than a detective story. . . . The real mystery that Harrison explores in The Great Leader has little to do with cults or missing persons, and is much more concerned with how a man whose entire life has been defined by his work carries on after that job has ended. . . . The Great Leader is most successful when it explores Sunderson’s process of reinventing himself, and Harrison seems to know this. Chasing the Great Leader, Sunderson begins to realize that the job may no longer matter to him, and his response to that growing realization is what truly carries the plot.” —John Shortino, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“To enlighten and to entertain: what else is there? And while good books—even so-so books—serve both functions, if you ever have to choose one over the other, keep in mind that a book that entertains without enlightening can still be a guilty pleasure, but a book that enlightens without entertaining is algebra. Meaning that on some level your brain has to have a good time or it’s pointless, and I am happy to report that The Great Leader carbonates page after page after page. You might go so far as to compare it to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. . . . [Or] Willie Mays. Mays was a magic act, but the kind that left you with the feeling that the miraculous stuff surprised him too. And that’s where Harrison fits in, 30-odd books down the road—his own shelf in the library—and you can still feel the excitement every time he pulls something new out of his ear. Which pretty much happens on every page he writes. . . . Pick up the book for yourself, drop it on the floor and wherever it falls open there will be something just as good. . . . Jim Harrison can break all the rules he wants and come out smelling like a rose.” —Pete Dexter, The New York Times Book Review
“Jim Harrison brings his established fascination with the rugged places of the natural world, the pleasures of good food and the persistence of sexual desire to this sometimes playful, often poignant story of one man’s twilight quest for redemption. . . . Jim Harrison’s latest leaves no doubt he still has much that’s fresh, entertaining and thoughtful to say.” —Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness
“The lyrical narrative cascades between dark comedy and revelation and, though it plows familiar soil, could be among Harrison’s more rewarding in years.” —Ted Roelofs, The Grand Rapids Press
“Jim Harrison conjures The Great Leader of a bizarre hedonistic cult.” —Vanity Fair
“The Great Leader is precisely what readers will want reading it to be: enthralling, exhilarating, provocative.” —T.F. Rigelhof, The Globe and Mail
“Harrison writes of [the natural world] with such specificity and beauty.” —Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times
“The Great Leader is a novel filled with Harrison’s trademark charisma, style, humor and lusty goodwill, along with endless paragraphs of superb observation . . . reading Harrison is always a pleasure, as nearly every page is a contagion of delightful insight and a burst of happy pleasure. Harrison, the author of more than 30 books of fiction, poetry, essay and memoir is perhaps our greatest American writer if judged by the fulsomeness of his vision of humanity (Balzacian), the lustiness of his prose (Millerian), the enormousness of his concern (Faulknerian), and the acuteness of his judgment (Didionian). The Great Leader provides both enlightenment and joy. What more can we poor readers ask?” —Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle
“A mountain, a mess and an agonized moralist, Detective Sunderson makes this mock-epic one of the most memorable tales of contemporary master Harrison . . . Wounds-and-all portrait of a lion in winter, beleaguered but still battling.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[The] cat-and-mouse game between the two main characters is used effectively to explore the intrinsic tensions between the universal truths of justice, religion and morality . . . A classic Harrison novel, complete with humorous and introspective characters.” —Joshua Finnell, Library Journal
“Comic backwoods noir . . . [T]he story’s motifs of lust and power, sex and death resonate.” —Publishers Weekly
“The publication of a new opus by Jim Harrison is always a cause for celebration in my world.” —Our Man in Boston
“Eminently readable . . . Harrison is adept at mixing in humor—both laugh out loud and quietly sardonic—to the mix.” —Chazz W
“Jim Harrison demonstrates yet again why he stands among our finest and wisest writers. The author’s voracious appetite for life bursts forth on each page . . . In many ways, [Sunderson] embodies the aging Harrison, who seizes the occasion of this novel to reflect on old age and—as he has for decades now—to celebrate life and the natural world.” —Joseph Barbato, Red Weather Review (online)
“A conversation with Jim Harrison is like opening a box of Cracker Jacks. You get to nibble through the delightful crisp kernels knowing a prize awaits: You just won’t know what it is until you get there. His books always hold similar delights, and both his newest novel, The Great Leader, and his poetry collection, Songs of Unreason, are super-sized and filled with prizes where you least expect them . . . His writing style . . . is both complex and simple, but always boiling when it hits the page.” —Bill Castanier, CityPulse
“It has been said that Harrison is that rare writer who can successfully blend the life of the mind with the life of action . . . His prose, like his characters, is direct and intelligent, without many grace notes and devoid of filigree. There is, in other words, a zen-like transparency to the Harrison process. That process, the act of conveying content, is trumped every time by content. Pulling that off consistently, as Harrison continues to do, is a talent that is reserved for the best of the best. This novel is an example of how rare such a voice has become.” —Doug Bruns, MostlyFiction Book Reviews (online)
“Jim Harrison is a grand old man of American letters, so he can play with cliches all he likes, thank you very much. A retiring cop obsessed with his last, unresolved case? Check. Last case revolves around a pedophilic cult leader? Double check. Retiring cop drinks excessively and is surprisingly successful in his pursuit of sexual liaisons with young women? Yeah, that’s here too. But, damn, the man can write, and the clich’s serve their appointed purposes in this engaging and needless-to-say-but-I’ll-say-it-anyway well-crafted and beautifully written novel that just bursts with the muscular, hard-bitten prose of the Master.” —Conrad Silverberg, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Seattle Times (Best Books of the Year)
Newsweek / Daily Beast Writers’ Favorite Books of 2011
Globe and Mail (Globe 100 Best Books of the Year)
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.
Within three weeks he had taken the recruit exam passing with the highest score possible, and at their urging went on to get a master’s in criminology. He didn’t mind being an ordinary trooper but his talents and knowledge of the U.P. were exhaustive and within a few years he was a detective in Marquette with a decided aversion for any administrative job.
His heart warmed when he sat at his desk, as if a heart could smile. The only slightly jarring note was the original Marilyn Monroe calendar, discreet by current standards, and also a photo of the actress Blythe Danner who used to figure large in his limited fantasy life. His friend Marion, a mixed-blood middle-school principal, had loaned him a book on Native American longhouses, which he had misplaced but now turned up under a pile of early logging monographs. At the onset Marion had told him that Chippewa (Anishinabe) didn’t build longhouses but they were the chosen dwelling in the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy—Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora—and in certain Pacific Northwest coast tribes like the Salish and the Suquamish who built one five hundred feet long. This latter fact jogged his mind and he shuffled through the papers of the Great Leader’s slender file finding the record of a Dwight Yoakam (an alias using a country singer’s name) being charged for disturbing the peace in Port Townsend, Washington, the year before. When Roxie called for the details Dwight had alarmed a group of Japanese tourists by speaking in tongues. When Sunderson had impounded Dwight’s old mint Nash Rambler for the day on the flimsy charge of larceny by conversion he had found nine current license plates in the trunk, one of them from the state of Washington. It was hard to explain to the Bloomfield Hills father that if his twenty-five-year-old daughter Portia, whom the cultists called Queenie, wished to give away thirty thousand dollars, mostly for propane heat for the longhouse and bathhouse, she was free to do so. The father, Sunderson thought of him as Mister Bigshot, got drunk at the Verling House the night he was in Marquette and propositioned a waitress for a grand, or so said an informant. They bathed in the Jacuzzi of the Teddy Roosevelt suite in the hotel on the hill. He fell asleep so she pulled the plug in the drain so he wouldn’t drown, removed the thousand from his wallet, and took her friends out drinking with a little cocaine on the side.
He didn’t have all that much information on the Great Leader but he still refused to ask the FBI for help. They were both nosy and condescending and as the disaster of 9/11 indicated they didn’t like to share the information they themselves ignored. Roxie had done the best she could in helping him build a file but in four days he would no longer be able to use her services. Despite his apparent intelligence he had never learned the computer mostly because of a lifelong aversion to electricity. When he was seven a cousin had been electrocuted having climbed the fence of the power station behind the pulp mill.
The ideal substitute for Roxie was the sixteen-year-old girl next door named Mona. She was an ace hacker and a detective friend of his who specialized in computer crimes told him that he kept her under surveillance. She mostly dressed in black explaining to him that she was a goth, which Roxie had explained to him but he kept forgetting the details. They talked a great deal partly because they were neighbors living solo. Her single mother was a traveling cosmetic salesperson so Mona was mostly alone though she said that she was never lonely. When they were both raking maple leaves a few weeks before Mona had teased him about blocking off his remaining dining room window with yet another bookcase.
His Lutheran childhood still carried a miniscule weight but enough to make him ashamed of his motive. He could stand in front of the case and at eye level pull out Slotkin’s treatise on violence in America and look across thirty feet of yard directly into her bedroom. Strictly speaking it wasn’t illegal but what was it? A bare butt crack was mere negative space but then it could make the temples of a man very nearly sixty-five years old pound unpleasantly. The biological imperative was a distracting nuisance. Checking his watch he knew she would be getting up for school in fifty minutes and the question was did he have enough self-control not to take a peek, which often devolved into a fifteen-minute trance? Part of his mind ached with guilt over this dubious matter even though since he was in his own home peeking wasn’t criminal. Sexuality could be like carrying around a backpack full of cow manure, especially for a senior frantically holding on to waning impulses.
He read the Great Leader’s file backward in lame hope for new perspective. His quarry Dwight had started religions in four locations in the United States, and had attempted three more in other countries including Canada, France, and Mexico. He had only lasted three days each in Hattiesburg and Oxford, Mississippi, when the police advised him to leave in a hurry. In both Montreal and Arles, France, he had lasted a scant three weeks before he drew too much attention and with an alien passport it was easy to get rid of him. It had occurred to Sunderson that for the populace in general religious belief can have nearly the attraction of money. Dwight lacked the apparent greed of the raft of southern evangelists who had built empires but he had certainly managed to live well enough. As far as he could determine Dwight was still short of forty years old. The second time he visited the longhouse people were otherwise diverted and he had a quick peek through the curtains of Dwight’s bailiwick, which could be called primitive regal, say the tent of Kublai Khan with a wealth of deerskins on the wall, bear skins on the floor, and a beaver skin duvet on the bed trimmed with mink pelts.
Sunderson wasn’t well traveled enough to know if foreigners were in general as gullible as Americans. In America you didn’t need credentials or if they were called for they could swiftly be created. A number of the Great Leader’s current devotees were college graduates though Sunderson had come to the conclusion that most colleges were a mere continuum of the utter slovenliness of high school. In the seventh grade our students are competitive with Western Europe but by the twelfth grade we’re in twenty-seventh place. When Sunderson had read this it made him happy as it helped explain why the United States Congress was so obviously ignorant of American history, not to speak of those sullen louts that had been in the executive branch. Bush would say, “History tells us,” and then come up with something history doesn’t tell us as pointed out by one of Sunderson’s heroes, the journalist David Halberstam. When Halberstam died in an auto accident Sunderson had a private evening of mourning with the writer’s books spread across his desk.
To peek or not to peek, that was the question. It was eleven minutes to zero hour when Mona’s lights would come on. Was he so fatigued by a bad night that he lacked moral resolve? Probably. This was a wan attempt to recapture the melancholic, philosophical mood he used to feel reading Kierkegaard in college. Of course even then he would have dropped Either/Or like a hot skillet if a nude girl had appeared before a window. Biology defeats philosophy in the first round. What was this stomach-souring anguish of sex? Even wise Socrates tripped over his pecker.
He tried to divert himself with history. The Congress of Vienna in 1814 was the occasion of a speech by someone—he needed to look it up—that warned against the dire consequences of raising a mediocre man to power. Quite suddenly he had to go to the toilet, threatening that there would be no dawn Mona, but he accomplished the humbling task in a trice. He was back within twenty seconds of zero hour having synchronized his clock with her alarm as closely as possible indicated by her turning on her bed lamp. His neurons raced. A prof had said that the Enlightenment wasn’t very enlightened. He pulled the Slotkin volume and her light came on. She flopped out of bed and stood. She leaned over to scratch her tummy. Her butt was aimed at me, thought Sunderson, either the gates of heaven or hell. She stood and turned to the window, instantly quizzical. Oh my god I forgot to turn out the light and she doubtless sees the crack of light in my window. He ducked, then crouched with his chest against the desk figuring that if he turned out the light now she’d know he had been watching. What a fool to forget the light! He felt the sweat on his forehead, the navy blue shame of the geezer or near geezer possibly caught at his ignominious vice. He had more than a touch of acid reflux, which didn’t help. When clothed Mona, usually in goth black, looked too slender but in the nude her breasts and bottom were ample. His old dick, sometimes a friend but now a foe, was pointlessly hard and deserved, he thought, to be slammed in the desk drawer for its implicit stupidity. How do we account for the theory and practice of our guilt?
His eye caught a few words from a piece of paper that belonged in the Dwight folder but had been carelessly stored. It was the testimony of a Carla G., the only person he could find who had become somewhat disaffected with the Great Leader’s cult and returned to Marquette. She insisted that Dwight had moved headquarters from Marquette to Ontonagon for greater control but Sunderson knew it was the cheaper land over to the west. Carla G. was a shopper and claimed that was the reason for her departure but on further probing she began to cry and it nearly ruined his whitefish sandwich. They were lunching in the bar of the elegant old hotel, the Landmark Inn, and several women of the feminist persuasion glared at Sunderson as if Carla’s weeping was his fault. She finally admitted she had quit the cult because Dwight had maintained that she was his true love but she soon discovered he was screwing the other members, sometimes even a few of the men, and possibly underaged girls. Sunderson practically gasped at this new detail and then her mind wandered off into details about the Great Leader’s various masks and costumes. He had a half dozen or so tree costumes made of the bark of different trees in order to be invisible. He had a round mask with his face on all sides, with eye holes, and his features bleeding into each other so it looked like he could see like an owl. The last bite of the whitefish sandwich was hard to swallow. Out in the parking lot at her car Carla had embraced him in her thin summer dress putting her hips and pelvis into it. She started crying again and said that her father had abandoned the family when she was only seven and all she could remember was all the spankings he gave to her on her bare bottom. With a glint of something in her eye she suggested that he come to her apartment. He said that it would be improper for him to do so until late October when he retired, and she said, “What do you mean?” as if he were the naughty instigator. At that moment her cell phone rang. She answered with an air of importance and a loud voice squawked, “Carla, I want your ass on my face right now!” She reddened and struggled with her car door. “That young man likes you,” Sunderson chuckled and walked away, absolutely convinced that Carla was a fabulous liar about everything and was in all likelihood a frontwoman and spy for Dwight in addition to being nuts.
In truth Sunderson was fair looking. Many thought that though he was verging on sixty-five he could pass for fifty-five. He was without vanity so this meant nothing to him. “Sixty-five is sixty-five,” he would reply. Roxie had said many times that he looked “ratty” but that was because he had bought no new clothes in the three years since his divorce. When he had lunch with his ex-wife Diane a few weeks before to settle a business matter she was appalled because both the cuffs of his sleeves and his sports coat were frayed. She had insisted on signing the house over to him because when her parents from Battle Creek had died she had become “overloaded,” plus she was now married to a retired surgeon who shared her passions for art and nature. He had only met Bill a few times, mostly because doctors don’t normally hang out with detectives and because often during their marriage when invited out he had the slightly paranoid feeling that people would have preferred if only his wife had shown up. Near the end of it all he had asked just how she demonstrated her love for the arts and nature. They were having dinner and she broke into tears at the question and left the table for her small private room where she listened to classical music and looked at her art books. He didn’t explain that his cold crankiness was caused by a child-beating incident that afternoon. A boy of ten had been unmercifully beaten by his drunken father. The boy lost several teeth and his nose was crushed flat. His mouth was too swollen to talk so he wrote, “I don’t want dad to get in no trouble.” It was out near Champion and when Sunderson and a trooper led the handcuffed man out the door Sunderson tripped him so that he pitched off the steps onto the sidewalk on his face. He never shared this sort of information with his wife who found so much unbearable. A hatchling robin fallen to the ground out in the yard brought her to tears.
On the way to work he was drowsy so he drove down to the harbor and stood out in the cold north wind that was pushing waves over to the top of the break wall. He felt forlornly on the wrong track with the Great Leader. His colleagues and captain in the state police teased him with, “Where’s the evidence of a crime?” Everyone knew there wasn’t a provable one and it was certainly an ironic way to end a fine career. His uncle John Shannon who was a commercial fisherman liked to say, “Every boat is looking for a place to sink.” There were far more rumors of sexual abuse these days than day-old bread and in this case the mother and daughter were unwilling to testify.
He turned and looked at the huge Catholic church on the hill and received a modest jolt in his frontal lobe, not really a clue. The year before the divorce they had taken a vacation in northern Italy and his wife had been in a serene trance over religious art and architecture while he as an historian mostly saw the parasitical nature of the Catholic Church. This was what truly goaded him about Dwight who had managed to get seventy people to give up their lives and money. By living in primitive conditions in the “past before the past” as Dwight called it they would have a wonderful future. Was this any more cockamamie than the Mormons, or the Catholics for that matter? The idea that something so obviously stupid worked with people irked him. They beat on their drums, chanted in tongues, danced, and hunted and fished. As the members spiritually matured their pasts would reshape themselves. Dwight seemed to utterly believe in what he was doing and then one day he didn’t and would move on. The little information Roxie had gathered on the Great Leader’s activities seemed to center on the Mayan calendar, the nature of which Sunderson didn’t yet understand. He suspected that it was true Dwight had had sexual relations with the twelve-year-old daughter of a cult member but there was nowhere to go with this. Sunderson was concerned that when you looked into the history of religion those in power generally devised a way to get at the young stuff, which seemed also to be a biological premise in other mammals. This was scarcely a new idea as Marion had noted. Just as Sunderson’s hobby was history Marion, as a mixed blood, was obsessive about anthropology.