You Can't Go Home Again
James Crumley's Brilliant Ambivalence About Texas
First, the answer is yes: James Crumley's new novel, The Final Country (Mysterious Press, $24.95), is the one you've been waiting for. Ever since he knocked our socks off with The Wrong Case (1975), then rolled out two classics in a row -- The Last Good Kiss (1978) and Dancing Bear (1983) -- Crumley has been practically without peer. He's not the most prolific American crime writer, but crime fiction aficionados have learned that, like good scotch, Crumley's novels take a little more time than the ordinary stuff. Interim novels Mexican Tree Duck (1993) and Bordersnakes (1996) showed he was still one of the best at his game, but they weren't the 6,000-pound gorillas of their predecessors. Fans can now stop holding their breath, though, because The Final Country is it.
This book is so tight and powerful it could be carved in granite. The plot tends to cruise along with the ease of an Eldorado with a crankcase full of Southern Comfort. Even when it starts going too fast and you can't remember which case is real and which one's a red herring detour, you don't mind, because the language alone is worth the ride. The narration soars and singes and the characters lie, cheat, steal, seduce, interrogate, and complain with the laconic economy of a honky-tonk song. Almost every page has at least one noirish epigram or hangover lament that merits reading aloud to your book club group.
Crumley made his literary debut in 1969 with One to Count Cadence, a Vietnam novel. By the time it hit the stores, however, he was feverishly devouring Raymond Chandler novels. Crumley came to a gradual realization that his ambitions to write the "great American novel" could be channeled into the language of American hardboiled fiction. It was the poet Richard Hugo who introduced Crumley to Chandler's novels. A few hundred thousand words later, Crumley was regularly being referred to as "the bastard son of Raymond Chandler."
The parallels between Chandler and Crumley are worth noting: Chandler's Marlowe patrolled the mean streets of L.A.; Crumley's alternating protagonists, C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch, ride the asphalt trail of the Great West, with frequent pit stops for elbow resting at places with dim lights and stiff drinks. Chandler's point of view was informed by his background as a British public school lad sandwiched between being born in Chicago, military service, and ending up in L.A. Crumley claims Missoula, Montana, as his home and primary literary setting, but Texas themes run deep through his work. He was born in Three Rivers in 1939 and spent his youth in Texas, with roots in Mathis, Johnson City, Austin, and Kingsville, where he graduated from Texas A&I.
"My grandparents had a farm in Dripping Springs until my grandfather lost it," says Crumley. "After that he went to work for the state school for the mentally, ah, you know, intellectually challenged, out on Webberville Road. He raised pigs, and Granny was the dietician for the guys who worked out there. It was funny. We'd go out there and visit with the guys who worked out there, who helped my granddad. We'd sit around and eat cookies and milk with these grown men who were about my age. These guys let me see a world I don't think I would've ever seen any other way. They were full people even though they were trapped at a certain emotional/intellectual age. I remember those times fondly."
After two years in the army, Crumley attended the writing program in Iowa.
"When I was at Iowa," he says, "it was the first time I was around people who loved to read and write and talk about books. I was really happy to be writing and I told Dick [Yates] it was the most fun I'd ever had. He said, 'Wait, just wait ...' He was full of great advice. Dick said that finishing a book was like having a baby and then dragging it around by the afterbirth for years."
Crumley taught part-time at various universities for 14 years before putting down roots in Missoula, Montana, a town that seems to breed and nurture writers the way Austin sprouts guitar players. "There are probably 70 or 80 working writers and another 200 who write," he says, "so I have all the advantages of being around a university without having to go up there and put up with their bullshit."
"But how did so many writers end up in Missoula?" I asked him.
"We never figured it out," he said. "We don't know. But this is where, you know, Hemingway's hero, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was headed. After the Spanish Civil War, he was gonna come up to Missoula and teach Spanish."
There's far more naturalism in Crumley's work than in the vast majority of other noir fiction. The natural world even helps bolster the moral themes in his work, which may be a tip of the hat to transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson. But in The Final Country the most powerful currents seem to involve the tug of war between belonging and being alienated, between birthright and betrayal, and the double ache of loss and longing. Milo bends and sways against the tug of his Texas-Montana axis, just as Chandler's Marlowe juggled alienation and sentimentality in L.A. Other characters juggle various loyalties, often stabbing themselves on the bent needle of their moral compass. These peculiar tensions are evoked more than in any of Crumley's previous work.
The Final Country, which is taken from the first lines of Billy Lee Brammer's classic Texas novel The Gay Place, finds Milo temporarily planted in the Hill Country, owning a bar and a spread of land on Blue Creek -- just substitute Barton for Blue. Between the bitter indictment of rapacious developers and other money addicts and the sentimental look back on the Austin cocaine boom in the late Seventies and early Eighties -- an ideal noir backdrop -- one might wonder why this novel wasn't written years ago. Well, I made a stab at it in Rock Critic Murders in 1989, but truthfully, the only writer who could really pull it off with class is, and always has been, James Crumley.
Crumley is also probably the best writer Texas ever produced who disowns the Lone Star State. Unlike so many folks who claim native Texanhood by virtue of the skimpiest of connections, James Crumley is proud to say he's from ... Montana.
"I left Texas when I was 17," he told me, "and I never successfully went back. As I got older the politics really bothered me. On the other hand, it somehow gave the world Molly Ivins, so I guess it's got some entertaining features. I tried to live in Austin in the late Seventies. I met a woman there and fell in love. She was in graduate school and I stayed there a long time, or it seemed like a long time. I was living there when The Wrong Case came out."
It all comes back. The prickly heat in my nether regions, the sun like a fist on my head, a landscape hopelessly flat, that fiercely aggressive politeness that masquerades as hospitality. Self-righteous and poisonously narrow minds ...
-- "Driving Around Houston," from Crumley's short story collection Whores (1988)
Crumley may no longer claim Texas as his own, but The Final Country twangs and seethes with so much ambivalence for this particular place, it's plain to see that Texas still has a mighty hold on him. It's not just all the guys with three names. Anybody can do that. It's the heartache he puts into descriptions of the land and the taste of the air at a certain time of night. It's throwaway lines like "I thought you used to be a Democrat," and "Everybody here is either a stranger or strange," and malevolent patriarchs with the audacity to address a 60-year-old man as "son" or "boy." Most of all, it's an angry-bittersweet theme song wrung out of a place that's too big and too corrupt, a place that looks at its sins in the rear view mirror and sees nothing but a beautiful tale.
Milo's sense of alienation and ambivalence "gave me a way to look at it from the outside rather than the inside," says Crumley. "Milo has left the place where he grew up to follow a woman, which is often a mistake. Perhaps a mistake I've made myself."
Anyone with a decent memory of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely is bound to be tickled by the opening chapters of The Final Country. Crumley introduces us to the huge and scary but vulnerable black man, Enoch Walker (Moose Malloy), whom Milo (Marlowe), accompanies to a hard-case honky-tonk, lured there on the trail of suicide-pill-with-breasts Carol Jean ("I want my Velma!"), and before you can say, "I charge $25 a day and expenses," Enoch, like a guileless force of nature, breaks a man in half without really trying. After which he finishes his drink and disappears into the ether.
"I tend to steal things from Chandler by the handful," Crumley says. "Like Eliot said, 'Bad writers imitate, good writers steal,' but I think he stole that from a French poet."
Among his other attributes, Crumley is probably one of the few novelists to treat his detective to a three-way roll in the hay. In the new novel, Milo calculates various triangulations in the sack with his old girlfriend and an open-minded acupuncturist. The art of betrayal is another field in which Crumley excels by at least 69%. It would give away too much to give the particulars here, but readers best beware of the slick trickster named Molly.
Crumley also allows his protagonists to age, which most crime fiction heroes seem miraculously immune to. Milo, for example, is a Korean war vet (Sughrue fought in Vietnam), which makes him a good 60 years old. Taking inventory of his various wounds and scars, heartbreaks, and shattered bones can burn up a full page.
"I just couldn't do that," he says, referring to the unrealistically ageless detectives like Robert Parker's Spenser. "That's one of the interesting things, too. It wasn't something I did consciously, I just did it naturally."
Of course, he admits, not everything about The Final Country proceeded as painlessly as that decision.
"There was a sort of two-year misunderstanding with this book," he says. "I was trying to write it in third person, and I couldn't stand that voice, but I was thinking that I maybe would kill Milo off at the end of the book. My wife of course hated that notion. Finally after two years and 200 pages of that, I realized, Gee, maybe I was wrong. Not every idea I have is a keeper. So I had to go back and start over again."
Hopefully, Crumley fans won't have to wait as long for the next howl of the master's voice. His new novel, Crumley reports, The Right Madness, is a Sughrue novel, and it's going well. "It'll be interesting to see what happens with this book," he says, "because I actually know what happens."