Books: James Crumley, 1939-2008


Word comes that James Crumley has died of congestive heart failure. At least one of his novels, The Last Good Kiss earned him a seat at the table with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and another, Dancing Bear, is for me one of the best American novels of the last fifty years.
A lot of us have the first line of The Last Good Kiss memorized, like the opening of Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice: “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 Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” – But it’s Dancing Bear that haunts me as a picture of lonely America in the closing years of the last century. It is also very funny and sometimes poetic and very violent and very sad.
The critics’ darling, Cormac McCarthy, covers some of the same violent ground, but doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already suspect about debased human nature; despite the poetry, there isn’t anything in No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian you couldn’t learn elsewhere, and the Oprah bestseller The Road was a rehash of every genre post apocalypse novel from Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” to Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, and you’ll have a much better time reading Y. McCarthy and James Elroy have become splatterporn for the literati, assigned by professors as exemplary instruction for the na├»ve. "America was never innocent,” Ellroy scowls in American Tabloid We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets."

Violence is as American as apple pie, but you need a great soul for it to become tragedy, and that’s what Crumley’s books provide with narrators like C. W. in Kiss and Milo in Dancing Bear. Without a soulful witness, as in the heartless landscapes of McCarthy, Ellroy, and your average slasher film, suffering has no meaning, the dead are left unburied and unmourned as Antigone’s brothers. Crumley looks back more often than Lot's wife, and is all about the regret.
The “dancing bear” of the title might refer to the Indian myth invented for the opening chapter, telling how the bears taught native tribes to gather sweetness from the bee, or it might be a section of forest near the Dancing Bear River stolen from the natives by Milo’s grandfather, and endangered by corporate polluters (“pollution” being our era’s euphemism for poisoning someone else’s earth and water), or it might be the hide of a grizzly killed by poachers, or it might be Milo himself, kept hopping like a circus bear trained to “dance” by making him walk on a hot metal plate.
The later adventures of Milo and C.W., in Bordersnakes and The Mexican Tree Duck sometimes teeter on self-parody— the New York Times in a snide review, called the setting “a Montana demimonde undreamed of in the philosophies of Dale Evans”-- but then, The Thin Man and The Little Sister aren’t as good as Red Harvest or The Long Goodbye. For a while there, in The Last Good Kiss, The Wrong Case and the war novel One to Count Cadence, James Crumley crafted very good books, and in Dancing Bear he made a great one.

My neighbor the detective, who knew Crumley out West and told me about his death, has Crumley stories to tell, but my favorite is from the Chicago Sun-Times. Crumley showed up late for a reading once and apologized, explaining, "I lost my watch."
"Any idea where?" he was asked.
"Yeah," Crumley said. "I threw it out a car window in El Paso in 1978."

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