Wrote hard, put away wet

Missoula author Jim Crumley contemplates a large life, near-death and the company of a few good friends.



Through the fog of drugs I felt the black spike of pain pierce my shoulder, and for a second I was back at the moment of impact, when the bullet exploded below my collarbone and I followed its path, in reverse slow motion, back to the barrel of the Ruger Blackhawk .44 magnum still leaking fingers of smoke and then up to the eyes of the man who pulled the trigger, the man who looked down on me not with the black hate of an enemy, but the tormented concern of a friend.

And then I saw them, gathered around my hospital bed, and a quick head count assured me that I was the only casualty. They were all there: Ken Anderson, Ralph Beer, Bob Reed, Dave Thomas, Bill Vaughn, Bryan DiSalvatore, Judy Blunt. And behind them was Bill Kittredge, the man who had shot me, a hesitant and sheepish smile on his face.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“Just like you said it would, you crazy bastard,” Bryan said, chuckling. “The goods are safe and Letterman will never live it down. A couple of stadium guards have bad headaches but otherwise the job went clean.”

“I’m sorry about the shoulder, Sughrue,” Bill said, a morphine wave distorting his large features into a funhouse mirror. “But it was the only way I could get you out of the line of fire.”

That scene won’t be in Jim Crumley’s next book, a nearly completed tale featuring the continued adventures of private eye C. W. Sughrue. That scene—or an approximation of it, anyway—did, however, spring from Crumley’s fertile and twisted mind, the same rich ground from whence have sprung the countless episodes of drinking bouts, drug binges, lovemaking, love failings, shootings, knifings, road trippings, double-crossings and other sundry acts of passion, violence and mayhem that have cemented Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch—Crumley’s alternating anti-heroes—into the hearts of readers worldwide.

The beauty of this particular hallucination, coming as it did last fall, when Crumley was receiving visitors at Community Hospital, having narrowly escaped death from an unidentified malady that nearly drowned his heart and lungs, lies not so much in what it reveals about the mind of the gregarious 63-year-old writer, but what it reveals about his heart.

Loaded up with paralytics (to prevent movement that would dislodge the ventilator Crumley endured for 12 days) and painkillers, Crumley felt the pain of a nurse inserting a catheter into a vein behind his collarbone, and he associated that pain with Kittredge, at whom he was looking. His mind concocted a story involving his cast of friends and a robbery at a football stadium, perpetrated to embarrass talk show host David Letterman. And through the tunnels of pain, through the drug-induced disorientation, Crumley looked at his good friend Bill Kittredge and knew without a doubt that Kittredge had shot him.

And he knew, with equal conviction, that his friend had shot him to save his life.

“Oh, man,” says Crumley, laughing as he relives the absurd turn of his imagination. “I don’t know what the hell that was about.”

Jim Crumley could be the poster child for the Missoula Writer’s Club, if such an organization formally existed. Born and raised in south Texas, Crumley first moved to Missoula after graduating from the renowned creative writing program at the University of Iowa in 1966; he would leave and return a number of times over the ensuing years, searching for the respect and the paycheck that this town—and the writing profession at large—so begrudgingly spares, and finally settling in for good in 1984.

Back in ’66, Crumley had a master’s degree in fine arts but was not yet published; as a result, the University of Montana gave him a job teaching freshman composition. He taught comp for three years before his first book, One to Count Cadence, was published in 1969, two days after his 30th birthday.

The novel, begun as his graduate thesis and finished in a prolific two-month spurt shortly before he moved to Missoula, is an ambitious and hard-hitting look at an Army intelligence unit that nearly implodes in the Philippines before quite literally exploding in the nascent stages of the Vietnam War. It garnered a good deal of critical notice; Crumley’s use of straight-from-the-hip prose and the thematic layering of history and memory led the Chicago Sun-Times to label him the “James Jones of Vietnam,” and the New York Times Book Review to pronounce it one of the best novels of the year.

The University promoted Crumley, giving him advanced writing courses to teach. But the school failed to give him a raise, and Crumley, by then providing for a wife, her little sister and her two children, left Missoula for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a $2,500 bump in salary.

Finding Fayetteville pale in comparison to Missoula, Crumley quit after half a year and moved back. He would then pull teaching stints at Colorado State University (1971-74), Reed College in Portland, Ore. (1976-77), Carnegie-Mellon University (1979-80), and the University of Texas-El Paso (1981-84), all the while returning to summer in Missoula when feasible.

But it was an event that occurred during his first stay in Missoula that would give Crumley the tools that would ultimately shape his career. Richard Hugo, the beer-drinking, softball-playing poet who, along with others like Bill Kittredge and James Welch, would put UM’s writing program on the map, gave Crumley a Raymond Chandler book to read.

As he labored to produce a second novel, Crumley never forgot the intrigue and appeal of Chandler’s detective hero, Phillip Marlowe. After six years of fruitless pounding—“it was a Texas novel, maybe about my childhood or something, and it was one of the ones I burned and threw away more times than I can count,” he says—Crumley decided to give the detective genre a go.

The result was 1975’s The Wrong Case, a novel featuring a hard-living and big-hearted private dick named Milo Milodragovitch. “The Wrong Case made more money and received more critical acclaim than One to Count Cadence,” Crumley says. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it? Perched on the edge of a hard-backed chair in his wife’s studio, an unfinished room festooned with colorful sculptures in varied stages of completion, Crumley weaves tale upon tale of the kind of life that could only be evoked via the artful blending of history and memory. And like Sergeant Jake Krummel, the overeducated protagonist and narrator of One to Count Cadence, Crumley knows that the gulf between history and memory is not as important as the intersection of the two, and that both are subservient to the presiding master of a writer’s life: the story.

When Jim Crumley’s father came back from World War II—Crumley was 7 or 8 years old in 1946, and he uses the collective “we” when he speaks of his family’s early years, as in “when we came back from the war”—he settled his family in a small town 35 miles from Corpus Christi, Texas.

His dad worked the oil fields, moving up from a roughneck to a driller to a tool pusher and finally to general superintendent. The company his dad worked for was owned by distant relations of his mother’s, and the Crumley family lived in the relative comfort of the old servant quarters behind the owners’ house.

“He was a great mechanic and a good guy to work for,” Crumley says, squinting his eyes as if bringing his father into focus. “For years, when I’d run into somebody in a beer joint in south Texas, I was always ‘Shorty Crumley’s boy.’ He knew how to get people to do things the easiest way, without any shouting or hollering or any of that shit. And the oil fields are full—like anyplace else—with loud, drunken assholes.”

His mother, at 88 years old a spitfire whom Crumley plans to visit after completing his new book, lived a hardscrabble life as a girl. “She grew up really poor,” Crumley says. “Her dad was in prison when she was in grade school. You know, that kind of poverty, that sort of grinding…it damages people in ways that can’t be fixed.”

South Texas in the 1940s and ’50s was not the kindest of places, a lesson that Crumley learned early and often, and hasn’t forgotten since. “I grew up in a very mean place,” he says, a perplexed look creasing his weathered face. “I don’t know why it was so mean. It was very isolated and small townish when I was a kid. The white people all hated the Mexicans, the Mexicans were scared to death of the white people, and some of them hated them, justifiably so.”

The cycle of mismatched violence was easily absorbed by youngsters in town, and the bigger kids continually fought the little ones after school and on the bus. “I got the hell beat out of me up through the third grade,” Crumley says, chuckling. “I know this story is too perfect, but I have to tell it anyway. The school had gotten a new book in the library, a book of fairy tales, and I would read it on the bus after school. The kid who beat me up every day used to come over and say, ‘When are we gonna fight?,’ and I’d say, ‘As soon as I finish this book.’ This went on and on until finally one day I put the book down and beat the shit out of him, every day for the next three years.”

Crumley left Texas in 1957, quickly establishing the nomadic life that would define his next quarter century. He attended Georgia Tech for a year on a Navy scholarship, then quit both the school and the Navy when his first midshipman’s cruise on a destroyer resulted in severe nausea and the loss of 40 pounds. He then enlisted in the Army for three years—“well, two years, nine months and three days, actually,” he says—and was stationed at Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and then the Philippines.

Working in an intelligence unit that reported to the National Security Administration, Crumley knew that his outfit’s work in training the Vietnamese Army was a precursor to an increased U.S. presence there. “They knew [Vietnam] was going to happen, all the way back in the late ’50s,” he says. “That war was terrible. It wasn’t about rice, it wasn’t about oil, it wasn’t about anything but being mean and stupid. And destroying a lot of our own kids, and maybe a million Vietnamese civilians.”

After the Army, Crumley returned to Texas, where he played football at Texas A&I and earned a B.A. in history. He was then accepted to the writing program at the University of Iowa. “I wasn’t a star there,” he says. “I was one of the younger guys. But it was a great experience. When we weren’t writing, we’d drink and talk books all night, until the kids were ready for school. I was never very good at going to class.”

A couple years after the publication of The Wrong Case, Crumley found himself in a familiar position: broke, and chomping at the bit to get out of a teaching job. A stab at freelance writing had proven unfruitful, as Crumley discovered a hitch in his writing giddy-up. “From the very beginning I felt funny writing about real people,” he says. “That’s why I’ve never done much journalism. I love to read it, and a lot of it is stuff you really need to know, but a lot of it is either an axe blade or an ass-kissing. I was never able to come up with a way to do either.”

He landed a book deal for another detective novel, a Sughrue vehicle that has come to be regarded as holy ground among genre aficionados, despite its less than auspicious genesis. “Desperation is the mother of much imagination,” Crumley laughs. “It was a gift book.”

In addition to its all-world title, The Last Good Kiss (a phrase taken from a Hugo poem) opens with one of the most frequently quoted lines of the genre:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

The story behind that line is as vintage Crumley as the line itself. Booked for a reading in Davis, Calif., Crumley and his girlfriend at the time hopped into an old Fiat sport coupe and road-tripped from Colorado to the Sonoma Valley. “I did the Davis gig, and in San Francisco we waited four days for some blow to show up, and then we did it all in one night. At some point we were driving around on a wine tour, drinking wine and smoking dope, and I really wanted to have a beer,” he says. “We saw a sign on an old place that just read ‘Beer,’ so of course we stopped. In the bar, this big old bulldog came over and leaned on my girlfriend, who had a cable-knit sweater on, and he slobbered on her so much that in just a few seconds, the sweater sleeve was down past her fingers. The old lady behind the bar poured him some beer in an ashtray, and he got up on the bar and drank at the beer, and then went to sleep belching and farting like an old drunk. I never knew how to make that fit into anything, but I knew he belonged somewhere.”

A real-life event—or person—making it on to the pages of Crumley’s work, though, is a rarity. The balls-to-the-wall exploits of Sughrue and Milodragovitch find their breeding ground in the fertile confines of Crumley’s mind. “All this shit is just in my head,” he says. “I never write about anything real, and I never write about anybody I know. Everything I know about guns I get from Shooter’s Digest. I don’t even have any guns anymore, and I’ve never fallen in love with one. I get good advice from medical people and also cops about what actually happens when the shit goes down, physically.”

Not surprisingly, Crumley’s liberal use of violence, sex and drugs has drawn the ire of those more inclined to politically correct standards. “I get a lot of flak for the way I write, letters, people calling and shit. This is how I was raised, and how I talk, and this is how everybody I know talks. I make it feel like it hurts, but I try not to make it like Stephen King. I’ve never had a serial killer, well…except for the one that got away in the last book. I’ve never written a paragraph about the mutilation of a woman or a child.”

And as far as Crumley is concerned, those who label his writing “offensive” should look in the mirror. “America’s got such terrible problems with alcohol and guilt, leftover Puritanism, it’s not even worth talking about,” he says, heating up on the subject nonetheless. “If you bring your kids up to drink well, they’ll drink well. If you bring them up to drink badly, they’ll drink badly. And I’ve become aware of another strange thing, this obsession with cop and forensic shows. It’s always the cops that are the good guys, and I think the popularity of this has do with Americans wanting to feel safe. In my books, the police aren’t trustworthy any more so than anyone else. Even the good cop in the book I’m working on is not trustworthy, even though he saves everybody’s ass.”

While there’s no question that Crumley is a writing success story (he hasn’t taught since 1984 and, outside of a stint in Hollywood writing scripts, his income is derived from his books), that success has come with a few qualifications. Being pigeonholed as a mystery or detective writer, for example, rankles him a bit. “I don’t think of myself as a detective novelist, necessarily,” he says. “I’m doing something different, using that as a kind of a way, a method. I’ve found that out in writing this book, which I think is actually the first real detective novel I’ve ever written.”

Still, the lunch-bucket quality of his chosen genre does give Crumley satisfaction. “It almost sounds like a real job,” he says. “Instead of saying ‘I’m a writer’ in a bar, I say ‘I write mystery novels, I write detective novels,’ and they don’t look at you as if you had two heads, like if you said you were a poet.”

With an American readership that’s passionate but finite, Crumley has been buoyed by sales of his books overseas, where he enjoys an outstanding reputation. “For many years, I sold more books in France and Japan than I did in the U.S.,” he says. “The French have been very, very good to me.”

Sophie Parrault, a French producer who brought a film crew to Missoula a couple of years ago to shoot a documentary on Crumley (fittingly enough, it’s called The Way of the Road, and features Crumley in search of the perfect bar—this is a man, after all, whose last wedding—of five—took place at the Lumberjack Saloon), sheds some light on the respect issue. After describing an ecstatic meeting with the documentary director who would shoot the film, also a Crumley fan, Parrault wrote in her e-mail that “it appeared to me that I knew why I loved reading Crumley and not so much other crime novels: because he writes much more than a crime novel. It’s a genre he uses, but his books are definitely great literature.”

However they’re classified, Crumley’s books have afforded him a decent, though far from extravagant, lifestyle. He receives modest, odd checks in the mail, a couple hundred bucks from Books on Tape, twice that from the sale of Dancing Bear in Estonia, and once in a while a little bump from an award, like the $3,000—along with a silver dagger and bottle of Macallan scotch whiskey—he earned in England last year for The Final Country (a tale that takes the Montana-based Milodragovitch to Texas, a novel that Crumley calls his “get even with Texas” book).

Even with the random payments, though, Crumley struggles with finances like most Montanans. A recent car crash totaled his 1984 Honda Civic, and he borrowed a car until he scored a deal on a 12-year-old sedan. And his wife, Martha, says that they may have lost their house in the aftermath of his hospital stay were it not for a benefit held at a downtown bar by a group of friends.

“Yeah, my Writer’s Guild insurance had expired,” Crumley admits, “and I never would’ve gotten through the last year without my friends in Missoula.” He sounds uncomfortable talking about it. “Fuck, I’m not looking for sympathy,” he says.

Of course, Crumley has never coveted money (a characteristic held by most writers, by necessity), and has never had a problem turning his income into outcome. “I’ve spent as much money as they could give me,” he says.

His laissez-faire approach to the business end of writing has produced a funny episode or two. “One to Count Cadence was out of print for 17 years, and I didn’t even know it,” he says, laughing. “I was such a redneck that I didn’t know books went out of print. Nobody ever told me.” The book was re-released in 1987 under the Vintage Contemporaries label, facilitating a joyful reunion. “When I got my free copies in the mail, I remember sitting in front of the Hellgate Post Office and opening the package…it’s like one of your children came back, after running away for all those years.”

Jim Crumley thinks about death. The recent losses—both after prolonged battles with cancer—of Missoula writer James Welch and musician Warren Zevon, an old Hollywood running buddy, have hit him hard. “They’re two of the bravest men I’ve known,” he says. “Jim went to his death as himself. He was always Jimmy in there. An impossible loss. And Zevon…I saw that last thing on VH1…and shit. Shit. There’s too many dead people.”

But if Crumley—with nearly 64 years of good, hard living behind him—is feeling his own mortality, he’s not letting on. Not even with chronic gout, not with perpetual back problems (exacerbated by the car crash), and not with the mysterious malady that nearly killed him last year. “My doctor says I have the heart of a 35-year-old hippie,” he says. “My lungs still work, though I have to quit smoking again. I can still see the TV without glasses. I’m still not deaf, but God I’m waiting for that moment. Think of how lovely Charlie’s would be when you can turn your hearing aid off.”

In fact, the only lasting scare from Crumley’s recent health problems came during his recovery after the hospital stay, when he became convinced that he had lost his writing edge. “After seven months, I told Martha that I suspected I could never write again,” he says. “I could do e-mails but my head just didn’t feel right. Then suddenly it went away, and I went back to what I was doing. The book took a wonderful turn that I enjoyed a great deal, and there may be a laugh or two in there.”

The new book—it’s Sughrue’s turn now, because Milodragovitch roamed The Final Country—is a bit of a departure for Crumley, as there is no underlying big swindle to the plot, and he’s working on a double ending. But fans of Sughrue—“that’s ‘Shoog’ as in sugar, and ‘rue’ as in rue the day,” he explains—need not despair, for it sounds as if their man will be represented in fine style.

“Some people get killed, some people don’t know why,” Crumley says with a wry smile. “Then some more people get killed. There’s two different sets of murders, and enough driving to make your hemorrhoids hurt. Typical Sughrue stuff.”

And Crumley fans can be equally reassured, as their man has weathered the recent storm of health problems in typical Crumley style. The way he sees it, his flirtation with death is just another story to file away, somewhere in the gray fog between history and memory:

When I was just coming out of it in the hospital, I made a pass at Martha. It was my first pass at anyone, and it turns out to be my wife. I looked up, smiled at her, and said, ‘My name is Jim Crumley,’ and she looks down and says, ‘Yes, I know. I’m your wife.’ Obviously I had forgotten that, because it took three double-takes before it sank in. It was all very odd, and I’m glad I’m not dead. Like everybody else, I don’t know what’s on the other side, and I don’t worry about it. I think I’ve seen enough to know that, unfortunately, dead is just dead. I feel sorry for all those people who believe something else. Of course, they probably feel sorry for me, too. A little sympathy is not a bad thing in this world, as long as it’s not completely misdirected.


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