« Last Days of the Condor by James Grady | Main | For They Have Sown the Wind by Alessandro Perissinotto »

The Big Seven by Jim Harrison

Published by Grove Press on January 27, 2015

Sex and violence are frequent partners in fiction as in life. They are both improbably plentiful in the life of 66-year-old Sunderson, a retired police detective last seen in The Great Leader. Violence in particular is the theme of The Big Seven. Sunderson thinks violence should be the eighth deadly sin and blames its prevalence in the world's history, or more precisely his awareness of it, for making him "an alcoholic and a late-blooming sex maniac."

The book's first instance of violence follows Sunderson's impulsive plan to save his adopted daughter Mona, who has disappeared from Ann Arbor with a rock band that is headed for Paris. Later in the novel, Sunderson spends his time fishing and studying the Ames family, a "human junk pile" except for the female members, including the free-spirited Monica. Sunderson takes on another impulsive rescue mission concerning Monica while most of the Ames clan makes it their mission to kill Sunderson when they aren't killing each other. Elements of a murder mystery appear as Sunderson wonders why the trigger-happy family members are dropping dead from poison, although the "faux mystery" subtitle makes clear that this really isn't a mystery novel.

Sunderson is not a role model but he is a believable guy. He drinks too much. He lusts after young women, including his adopted daughter. He spies on naked women. He vows "to limit the amount of messiness" in his life but still sets a new "all-around record for sloppy behavior." He regularly engages in about half of the deadly sins.

Harrison's books typically wander, emphasizing the randomness of life. The Big Seven is no exception. While that might put off readers who prefer fiction that has a straightforward plot, Harrison's point is that life is rarely straightforward -- and how could it be, given that "the world is a madhouse"? I suspect that many older people, like Sunderson, are "puzzled by how in the sweep of life we end up where we do," tied in "peculiar knots that lack the clarity of our original intentions." We cannot "walk around the corner without tripping on a toad." In his unique way, Harrison reminds us that life's journey is an adventure, sometimes exciting, sometimes cruel, but almost always unexpected, even if you prefer to spend it fishing.

It takes time to adjust to Harrison's writing style but the time is well spent. He doesn't waste words. Even seemingly inconsequential sentences develop the reader's understanding of the story or a character or the human condition. Sunderson muses about life, death, the afterlife (acknowledging that he has "no talent for theology"), sex, the galaxy, and much else, including, of course, the deadly sins. Now and then his musings made me bust out a laugh.

I like Harrison's daring exploration of the American attitude toward relationships between old men and young women. In some cultures, age-gap relationships are common, accepted, and meaningful. Sunderson feels no guilt about the lust and affection he feels for a 19-year-old but he knows he will be judged (particularly by the ex-wife he still adores). Sunderson is old enough to be thinking about death and I can't blame him for wanting to think about pleasant ways to have a heart attack.

The Big Seven is less purposeful than Harrison's best fiction, including The Great Leader, although Harrison still crams more meaningful sentences into an average page than most writers produce in an entire novel. Sunderson complains that an Ames brother who is writing a crime novel created prose that "was absolutely devoid of any charm, one of the main reasons you read." Harrison writes with an abundance of charm and that's reason enough to recommend The Big Seven.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.