There are a few immediate sentimental draws to Cold Lessons, Michael McCulloch’s crime novel set in a city that bears an unmistakable resemblance to Missoula. McCulloch (a pseudonym for Keir Graff) is a graduate of Hellgate High, and he’s landed in Chicago as an oft-published book reviewer specializing in crime fiction. But being local and knowing the genre don’t mean you automatically join the ranks of the city’s crime novelists. For that, you need talent, which McCullough seems to have in abundance.
While the local appeal may attract Missoulians to his debut work, what will keep readers turning the pages is McCulloch’s understanding of setting and character and his willingness to let his story start slowly and build on its own momentum. Cold Lessons takes place in Garden City, Montana, where 55-year-old Gil Strickland passes time teaching English and spiking his coffee at Porte l’Enfer High. We follow him through a typical day of blowing off students, downing his customary three bourbons at a windowless bar, and petering out with his wife, Lolita. Then cheerleader Kristen Swales dies in a car wreck, a colleague confesses to having had an affair with her, and a student tells Gil about the cocaine moving through the school. While all of this may not be enough to cure impotence, it sure takes the edge off career-long boredom. Strickland decides to poke around and, of course, puts himself and the people he cares for in harm’s way.
In a genre where imitation comes cheap and easy, McCulloch has written his very own book, which is no small accomplishment for a first novel, or any novel for that matter. He accurately renders winter in Missoula, right down to the sunlight that occasionally breaks through the clouds and the slush along the curbs. His protagonist’s life is bleak, and not in the pat way that a typical sleuth’s life is bleak either. Strickland’s loneliness never feels affected and he is almost completely without charm. He has little to show us about virtue, grace under pressure, hardscrabble resourcefulness, savvy deduction, endearing eccentricity or redemption—the qualities that usually attend the heroes of crime fiction. Strickland’s just a drunk, a washout from a time of loftier ideals. But because he is so unpretentious and because he puts everything at risk against all sound judgment, we follow him on his chase.
In part, Strickland is such a hopeless case that our involvement can feel like rubbernecking—how cool will the mess look after he screws up next, one wonders—but McCulloch also displays a keen sense for the details that arouse empathy. For example, when Strickland comes home from the bar, he and his wife shoot rock-paper-scissors to decide on the evening’s beverage of choice. When he loses the draw, Strickland amicably resigns himself to white wine. After a stink bomb explodes in his living room, he takes down the drapes intending to have them dry-cleaned. They remain in a pile for the balance of the novel.
McCulloch also tempers the gloom with an uncanny sense of humor. The jokes are sparse, but they come off with an absurdity and intelligence reminiscent of “The Simpsons.” When Strickland finally pulls a weapon on one of his assailants, the man happens to be eating a meal at his dinner table. Strickland says, “Drop the chicken,” a line Homer would die for. A vice principal’s pep rally speech on hard work sounds like something straight from George Saunders:
“And don’t think that Ronald Reagan was born a political mastermind. Even he had to work for that knowledge. And you know what? Knowledge is power…No one is born strong. But with enough work, anyone can be powerful, even some little guy in a wheelchair. Do you kids want to be powerful?”
Perhaps the humor could be more accurately traced to James Crumley and David Lynch, McCullough’s two acknowledged influences, but I hesitate to make this comparison because McCulloch borrows from his mentors in subtle, controlled ways. It is from Crumley’s Milo Milodragovitch that Strickland inherits his nearly exhausted sense of good will and from Lynch that McCulloch learns how to transform small-town waywardness into horror. The bad people in this book are grotesque, and they are made so as much by poor taste in clothes or a mustache as by their moral lapses. McCullough also borrows from James Welch: Strickland seems to be a descendant of Jim Loney, a character always beyond the reach of help.
Though he’s just a rookie, McCulloch is a surprisingly restrained and un-intrusive writer. He doesn’t hit the gas pedal too hard, the plot never lurches forward but gradually eases into gear and picks up speed in all the right places. What you get in addition to a first-rate thriller is a character sketch of a nearly hopeless man stuck in a lonely town during its dreariest season. Having Missoula reflected back to us this way may not be cause for good cheer. But this town has given rise to another talented writer. And that’s worth celebrating.