The Big Seven by Jim Harrison, Grove Press, 352 pages
In the opening scene of Jim Harrison’s latest novel, The Big Seven , a ten-year-old boy has been stewing on a pew bench as “the pastor’s resounding basso boomed out the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Greed, Envy, Lechery, Gluttony, Anger, and Laziness.” Of these offenses, the child is at least partially culpable of five: laziness, because he would rather drift into a doze than listen to the pastor; gluttony, because he is already fantasizing about the sausage and pancakes that await him after the service; envy, because he is required to attend church although feverish while his sister recently escaped the obligation because of an injury; anger, in his bitter reflection that the fever has kept him from going ice fishing, but not from attending church; and greed, when he thinks about another kid’s bicycle — the best in town.
The book jumps forward some 50 years, revealing this boy as retired detective Simon Sunderson, a character Harrison’s readers have met before. Steeped in sins of all nature, Sunderson supplies experiential validation for William Wordsworth’s observation that “the child is father to the man.” While the child of the opening scene asks his father to clarify the meaning of the word lechery — the answer he receives is “You’ll find out when you’re fourteen” — the grown man is no stranger to this sin, or to any of the others.
It takes a while to figure out what this story — which simultaneously attracts and repels — is all about. Eventually, it centers around the murder of a young woman in an area of backwoods Michigan that’s been under the spell of a family feud, which is on a par with that of the Hatfields and the McCoys. But this plot line develops only after a disconcerting whirlwind of events that occupies the few dozen opening pages, wherein Sunderson travels to New York City, and then to Europe, in an effort to reclaim his drug-addicted daughter (the object of his lechery) from the pedophiliac rock star who kidnapped her. In the process, the detective extorts $50,000 from the rock star’s wealthy socialite mother and has his back broken by goons.
At times Harrison revs up his narrative speed, and then suddenly swerves from the unconvincing story line and into informal yet thoughtful reflection. This turns out to be an appealing aspect of his writing style. And so, when Sunderson attends a funeral for the murdered woman, Harrison writes, “The south end of his property was a deer route, deer being creatures of habit which sometimes gets them killed. Being creatures of routine also gets other animals in trouble, like us.” This reflection, seemingly apropos of nothing (though it turns out to be relatable to the death of the woman), is followed almost immediately by similar declarations that cleave the boundary between author and reader: “There is a dreadful finality when a casket is lowered ever so slowly. No one can imagine what comes afterward if anything and our sense of injustice gets full play. Why should people who have suffered all of their lives die without justice? The most brutally simple statement in the human race is ‘it’s not fair.’ ”
Is this Sunderson’s voice or Harrison’s? The ambiguity seems intentional, as it does during some of the author’s forays into stream of consciousness (which only occasionally verge on rambling). And though directly addressing the reader may be considered a writerly sin by some, Harrison has earned the right to breach this or any of the other frequently taught tenets of “good writing.” Now seventy-seven, the poet and writer of both fiction and nonfiction has dozens of published works under his belt. Though The Big Seven follows some of the traditions of a mystery, and though its protagonist is complex by virtue of his many weaknesses, the chief pleasure in reading this story comes from unraveling the more involved decisions of form made by its seasoned teller.