Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Jim Harrison has achieved legendary status for his serious literary works, including Legends of the Fall (in film version starring Brad Pitt) and True North, in addition to poetry, nonfiction and films such as Revenge (starring Kevin Costner) and Wolf (starring Jack Nicholson).
But some of his most oddly endearing characters appear in other works, such as his just released The Big Seven. Harrison reprises retired Michigan State Police Detective Simon Sunderson, who appeared in Harrison’s most recent novel The Great Leader (2011). (In 2013, Harrison published Brown Dog, a collection of previously published stories about an equally entertaining Native American pulp wood logger ne’er do well who chases women incessantly, among other misadventures).
Sunderson is a seeker of sorts and also quirky. Psychologists might say he’s chasing his shadow self — qualities a person is in denial about, projecting anger upon those who display them openly.
For example, in Leader, Sunderson doggedly pursues a cult leader with a penchant for sexual relations with young girls. This while Sunderson himself can barely keep from peeping out his window at the 16-year-old girl next door who likes to tease him with naked yoga in the morning (sometimes waving at him!).
Somehow, Harrison makes it work, so creeps, peeps and perps aren’t so scary, just over the edge and courting their own doom. And yes, in Sunderson’s world, we’re all doomed.
Sunderson is a believable curmudgeon of the Finnish Lutheran persuasion, holding a hard-nosed outdoorsman-cop perspective questioning everything, including his own peccadillos, while morosely nurturing his own guilt.
A libidinous goof facing his own mortality in retirement, Sunderson admits that most things he does he screws up, except fishing. Fishing in the Upper Peninsula is his real life, the only place he can really breathe (a theme through Harrison’s books and characters), and the only place, maybe, where his fantasy life and reality combine.
“A fantasy life is a big item for a man,” Sunderson muses in Seven, a reference to the seven deadly sins. “When you have nothing and your mind can make love to the most beautiful woman in the world it can be grand. Or catch a big fish, make a bunch of money.” Admit it, guys: Gotcha!
Sunderson drinks too much and smokes too much and still peeps out the window at the married woman who lives next door now doing yoga in her nightie. (He and his ex-wife adopted the 16-year-old so he had to move on from that fantasy/weakness/sin.)
Harrison has Sunderson immersing himself in the seven deadly sins — and an eighth he discovers, violence — like a dog rolling in roadkill. He purposefully purchases a cabin in a rural area dominated by a backwoods family named Ames who hate, rape and kill each other. He obtains the cabin through blackmail extorting money from the mother of a rock star who victimizes his stepdaughter (whom he guiltily also has sex with). But the fishing is good. Between lecherous musings and multiple couplings, he also manages to solve a few crimes.
Like the whiskey in the flask he carries, Sunderson may be an acquired taste. But once hooked, it’s hard to wriggle free of this mesmerizing angler who trolls the shameful impulses and moral hypocrisies within us and our society.
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating, and the forthcoming Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, Spring 2015.