The Big Seven by Jim Har­ri­son, Grove Press, 352 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Loren Bien­venu

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.

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