Makeshift memorials have sprung up in the usual places: A sign at the Depot dubbed his usual spot “Crumley’s Corner.” The old Lee Nye photo on the wall in Charlie B’s had an obit tacked to the frame; an opened pack of Dunhills rested next to it. James Crumley died on Wednesday, Sept. 17, at St. Patrick Hospital. He was 68.
Crumley wrote 11 books, most notably The Last Good Kiss, which was published in 1978, and is often credited with inspiring a generation of hardboiled crime fiction writers. But Crumley the author meant little in Missoula compared to Crumley the man. His phone number was always in the book, he usually sat on the same barstool, his anecdotes never failed to impress. Everyone, it seemed, called him a friend. He was, in the words of longtime cohort William Kittredge, our storyteller.
Keeping with that tradition, we asked friends and colleagues, from best-selling authors to top-shelf bartenders, to contribute, in their own words, memories and stories of Jim.
The reaction was such that we couldn’t print all of the essays here. But if you visit www.missoulanews.com, all of them appear in their entirety. We invite readers to add their own, as well.
The unfinished drink
I met Jim in the fall of 1993. He was on a book tour and giving a reading at the University of Iowa, his alma mater. I attended his reading. Afterwards, I introduced myself as a fan, and offered to drive him around town. I had contracted Hepatitis A during the Great Flood of ’93, and was under doctor’s orders not to drink for six months. This made me the ideal chauffer for Jim.
We made a wide circuit of many bars, stopping for a drink at each place, discussing literature. I was impressed by his prodigious memory and his familiarity with a wide range of writers. What seemed to impress Jim was that every single bartender in town knew me by name.
The next day I picked him up for lunch. He asked if a bar called “The Airliner” was still in existence. I didn’t like the place much; it was downtown, which made it risky in terms of avoiding the police when it closed at 2 a.m. Plus, it was a fraternity bar. I couldn’t imagine why Jim wanted to go there, but I dutifully drove him to its entrance.
Inside, Jim looked around at the walls, covered in framed photographs of aircraft, like a museum of the history of flight. Jim appeared lost in thought, almost wistful, and his mood changed drastically to a deep inner sorrow. He ordered two martinis. He told me that when he was a student, his best teacher was the writer Richard Yates. Every day after class, Yates came to The Airliner and ordered a martini.
Jim picked up his drink, tapped it against the second martini in a toast, and drank. He looked around the room once more, and nodded to the full martini sitting on the bar. “Goodbye, Dick,” he said.
I asked what became of Yates and Jim told me he drank himself to death. I feared that fate myself. I asked Jim if he’d ever thought about quitting. “No,” he said. “I was born naked and screaming and that’s how I’ll go out.”
When I heard the news of Jim’s passing, I drove to The Airliner. The photographs were gone. All that remained of its former décor was a large hand-painted mural of a Sopwith Camel engaged in aerial battle with a German Fokker, ghosts fighting ghosts.
I ordered two drinks and the bartender brought them to me. I left one drink on the bar and tapped it with my glass. “Goodbye Jim,” I said.
Literature offers a kind of immortality. Every future reader will know Jim, understand his sense of honor and justice, his pain and sorrow. They will hear the beating of his heart, feel the power of his prose, the force of his personality. Men die; deeds are forgotten. Language lives forever.
Chris Offutt is a novelist and short story writer living in Iowa City. He was a visiting writer at UM in 1997–1998.
Crumley’s night of song
Stories about Jim Crumley are much like his prose. Both have an airy physicality that leaves you feeling, even years after the fact, as though something untoward can blow in at any moment.
My stories include encounters in Paris bars, where I found he had become best friends with the bartender by speaking tortured Texi-French. “The French love a fuss,” Crumley used to say, and one of the fusses they loved was him.
And river trips. On a scenic tour of the Flathead downstream from Buffalo Rapids, Crumley beached his Mackenzie boat and unloaded long after everybody else had finished supper. The water level on the lower Flathead is controlled by Kerr Dam, and overnight the river dropped dramatically. All of the boats were high and dry. No big deal for rafts and kayaks. Then we came to Crumley’s outfit, a barge worthy of Cleopatra, which needed the grunts, groans and curses of eight or 10 of us to get it (miles?) across the rocks to water. I think Crumley loved a fuss, too.
My favorite is the Crumley night of song. We used to gather weekly for refreshments in the bar at the Edgewater, which is what the Doubletree was called in Missoula’s primitive days. Looking out on the Clark Fork–where, according to a stray talk started by another and mostly forgotten local writer, scenic fly fishermen still work on hire to provide decor for patrons–the Edgewater sported overstuffed chairs and heavily padded mauve and lavender-colored fixtures, which gave the place a disturbing, womb quality. Nothing at all like Charlie B’s, the more widely reported Crumley haunt.
One night on the cusp of Christmas, the spirit of the season ambushed us. Caroling. The night begged for caroling. I can’t remember the complete cast of characters. Crumley, of course. His wife, Martha. Judy Blunt. My wife, Gayle. Others, I’m sure. I was still working as a policeman then, and I could not imagine a single good thing coming from the enterprise. I went along convinced that someone sober would be required to explain the disturbance to people in uniform, and that I was bound to celebrate Christmas with a pink slip.
The first stop was Neil McMahon’s place. The crowd broke into song at his door, and a moment later Neil answered. Good cheer was shared, and we were off to call on Brian DiSalvatore and Dee McNamer. Song once again burst forth. Here, though, we sang unanswered on the doorstep, whether because no one was home, or because Brian and Dee were too sensible to get snared by the renegade holiday mob loose in their neighborhood.
Crumley, some might be surprised to learn, knew every word to every carol. And, his repertoire was by no means limited to holiday tunes. I can still hear him graveling his way through yet one more chorus of the sturdy, always reliable hymn he chose, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Bob Reid is a former Missoula police officer and current director of the county’s emergency services.
His chair is empty
I was a little awestruck and a bit nervous when I first met Jim Crumley back in 1996. He was Mr. Crumley to me then. Frankly, I idolized him. Like many writers from my generation, I had been inspired to become a crime novelist largely because of his fiction. He was mythic for his work and also for his hard charging, close-down-the-bar ways. But I was late to the party and never really knew that person. The man I came to know was almost like an old world gentleman. He always remembered the name of my wife, Emily, asked about her welfare in correspondence, and rose when she walked into a room. He was generous with praise, took a compliment gracefully, and seemed to have little regard for ego or egotists. In retrospect, I should have known that this was the kind of man he would be, even before I shook his hand. Jim’s decency and humanity are evident in his books.
The last time I saw him, he was in a hotel conference room, sitting in a chair. I had flown to a mystery convention, having heard a rumor that he would be there. The occasion was a British publisher’s party, and though he was not the guest of honor, it was clear that he was the most revered and respected individual in the room. Jim had a drink in his hand. He was holding court and smiling with contentment beneath that great moustache.
Jim Crumley did what most writers can only dream of: He achieved a kind of immortality through his books. And, in his later years, he found true love. Few discover such good fortune in their lives.
He was my friend. His chair is empty, and no one else will fill it.
Zoe sa mas.
George Pelecanos is a New York Times best-selling author living in Silver Spring, Md. His latest novel, The Turnaround, was published in August.
James Crumley didn’t give a hoot what people thought about how he lived his life and he didn’t judge anyone on how they lived theirs, unless they were cruel, small spirited or high and mighty. He wasn’t really fond of sloppy drunks, academics or the very wealthy, but he cut them all a lot of slack.
He was more genuinely interested in listening to people than anyone I’ve ever known. I’m supposed to do that because I write people talking for a living; Jim gently showed me how bad I was at listening, and casually and constantly reminded me that nothing is more important.
Roger Hedden is a playwright and screenwriter living in Missoula. He collaborated with Crumley on a screenplay that debuted at the Montana Rep’s Colony summer workshop in June.
Will you be my parents?
This past week, as I read through the obituaries for James Crumley in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post, and remembrances written in places as far away as Finland and France, I was struck by descriptions of his work as being revered, influential and poetic, coupled with violent, drug-induced and alcohol-soaked. But for me, Jim was always much more than his books.
Sure, we wasted many hours in bars over the 35 years of our friendship—an occasional night at the Depot, when I would drive through Missoula and stop specifically to see him, and more than a few afternoons in Charlie’s, where he would take the time to introduce me to all his friends. In fact, it was at Charlie’s where we shared our last beer, Jim having asked me to join him there because he feared he might not have long to live.
And in 2003 I even had the opportunity to experience the reverence, influence and poetry firsthand when Jack Spencer was shooting his remarkable series “This Land,” and happened to stop at the Livingston Bar and Grille. When the Nashville photographer learned he was sitting at the bar next to James Crumley, Spencer repeated word for word the opening of The Last Good Kiss:
“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.”
Reverence and poetry indeed.
But to me Crumley always seemed bigger than his fluctuating fortune and his fame. Unlike most writers, Jim understood that publishing is not a zero sum game, and would offer to share his contacts with others if he thought they would be of some help. And even though he could be downright intimidating at times, once you got past the gruffness, both he and his wife, Martha Elizabeth, were as kind and generous toward new acquaintances as they were with family and friends.
Years ago, my young daughter and I joined Jim and Martha in that same Livingston restaurant where, years later, I would hear Crumley’s words quoted back to him. Martha, wearing a long dress and silk scarves, drank tequila. The bartender, Glenn Goddard, whom Crumley considered a good friend, poured Jim a large scotch. My daughter looked at the two of them awash in that warm, late-afternoon Livingston light, climbed onto a barstool of her own, and knew exactly what to say: “Will you be my parents?” she asked.
Kind and generous as ever, of course they said yes.
Diane Smith is the author of Letters from Yellowstone and Pictures from an Expedition. She lives in Missoula.
His own sour mash
Next year will be James Crumley’s 40th year on our bookshelves—a period long enough that it’s easy to forget what an unlikely figure he cut on the literary landscape, before he left it. Though best known for his hardscrabble C.W. Sughrue and Milodragovitch series, Crumley first broke into print in 1969 with the straight-up literary novel, One to Count Cadence. Set in the early days of the Vietnam War, it chronicles a drunken band of enlistees as they veer from one bar and brothel to another, and finally into war. The novel was well received. But already—at just one book—Crumley was proving hard to contain. There was just too much of him. “After the nth brawl, violence turns us off,” wrote the New York Times reviewer. “Drunkenness palls; sex becomes a bore. There is a monotony, not of inaction, but of too much.”
Six years later, with his first Milodragovitch book, The Wrong Case, Crumley slipped into the hardboiled crime novel—a form where too much action, too much boozing, too much sex is never a problem. In fact, it’s the whole point of reading such books. Crumley was perfectly suited for this luxuriant, hugely enjoyable vein. He was a swing- for-the-fences stylist, a fanciful plotter, a crank and a big-hearted romantic, and a wry observer of relations between the sexes. He had so much to give readers he invented another hero, Sughrue, a banged-up Vietnam War veteran, to keep the toot going. The novel in which Crumley introduces him, The Last Good Kiss, is already viewed as a classic of the genre. It also famously has one of the best first lines of any crime novel.
Coasting along these rivers of hooch and the sprung poetry of Crumley’s prose, Milodragovitch and Sughrue were the yin and yang of a bleak, deeply skeptical worldview—one side hard vengeance, the other stiff-lipped persistence. These postures can be found in hardboiled crime through the ages, but quickly Crumley took the form places it hadn’t been before—and not just because he wrote about the West. In his novels, the long, brutal fallout of the Vietnam War was lived and relived on barstools and in alley dust-ups. It is the jagged weave running through the lives of Crumley’s characters, always ready to unravel. In this sense, Crumley wasn’t just writing entertainment—though his books were always entertaining. He turned the cocktail of melancholy and self-abuse we’re used to getting in hardboiled crime into his own sour mash, showing how it came from more than a dame sometimes, but from a nation which had taken more from some people than they ever expected to give—and never quite returned the favor.
John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle, frequently contributes book reviews to the Indy. He lives in New York City.
A redneck existentialist
Crumley lived out the heroic myth: You face the monster every day, the monster you need to deal with if not defeat. The monster could be a rambunctious bear, a barroom challenge or a teaching job. It’s a romantic idea, facing down the monster, and for Jim it wasn’t an abstract exercise.
We’d been on a three-day academic gig at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and were now heading back to Missoula. It was mid-winter, 1967. We drove through Yellowstone instead of around it. A herd of elk was wintering in a white field just off the old highway. Jim stopped the car and got out. “Look at those beautiful bastards,” he said. He walked across the field toward the herd. The herd didn’t spook. Neither did Jim. He stepped up to a thousand-pound bull as if communing with a primal spirit. Back at the roadside I’m thinking, Jesus, Crumley, what the fuck are you doing?
Jim and the bull stood still, regarding each other. Then Jim reached out and stroked the bull’s nose. He’s dead, I thought. Crumley’s done it this time. There had been other times—barroom rumbles, car wrecks, and jobs he couldn’t afford to quit but quit anyway—but this was a no-way-out situation. If the gods wanted Crumley dead then this was their opportunity. I think Jim thought of it exactly that way. He walked back to the car, unscathed and unshaken. “You’re fucking crazy, you know that?” I said. “No shit,” he said. We cracked another six-pack and headed home.
What did I make of this? Nothing, at the time. Story material, maybe. But I’ve come to understand that Crumley was always a work in progress. He was inventing himself, crisis by crisis. Does that make sense? It does to me. He started poor as dirt with no prospects. He had no inherited identity, as people who come from money or solid middle-class backgrounds do. He was smart as a whip and knew it, and he knew it meant something to be that smart. I think of him as a redneck existentialist. He once wrote in a letter, “I never seem to know what I’m doing until it’s done.” He was talking about writing novels, but he could have said it about himself and the man he became.
Rick DeMarinis is the author of The Year of the Zinc Penny and Apocalypse Then: New Novellas and Stories. He lives in Missoula.
I realized that Jim Crumley’s death had left me in a bad way when I briefly considered writing a poem about him. The thing is—I can’t write poetry worth a lick. I love it. I love it so much that I wouldn’t degrade the form by forcing myself on it. Still, there I was, wandering around in a daze, thinking I would write one of those list-like poems that I admire. “Ten Things I Learned from James Crumley, Volume One.”
Jim Crumley, too, loved poetry, although he swore he was a bad poet. I’ll take his word for it, but it’s hard for me to believe there was any kind of writing at which Jim did not excel. There’s poetry in his simplest lines. (“There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time.”) But it seems to me that Jim’s largest gift was empathy. I know he admired Raymond Chandler greatly, and I suppose there is no Crumley without Chandler, but I’ll go out on a limb and state here that I prefer Jim’s work because he loved all his characters. It sounds like a simple enough thing, but you’d be surprised how many writers fail at this.
It’s easy, I think, to see how Jim influenced writers such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, to name two. My own work probably seems far removed from his, and not just at the level of execution. He wrote about men and masculinity and the role of the West in the American imagination. I spend a lot of time rattling around inside the heads of adolescent girls, who manage to carry their petty shames and humiliations well into adulthood. But Jim was an inspiration to anyone who cared about putting words on a page. There are writers much less successful than Jim who, having achieved good notices and a few awards, draw a line in the dirt and tell those left behind: “I’m over here and you’re over there. Stay back.” Jim welcomed everybody into the fold. I’m not sure he would have wished the compulsion to write on anyone, but if you had the affliction—really had it, to the point where a good day of writing rose the hackles on your neck—then Jim would be the first person to commiserate with you over a drink or two. Knowing him was a gift. Reading him changed my life.
Laura Lippman is an award-winning crime fiction writer living in Baltimore, Md. Her latest novel, Another Thing to Fall, was published in March.
In a nutshell
Jim’s writing and lifestyle earned him a great deal of reverence, even among the notably private people of Missoula. He could have been a massive and perpetual asshole, and he still would’ve had a million drinks bought for him, a million pats on the back, a million attentive ears for his stories. But he was always just Jim: open, friendly, interested and funny as hell.
Like many of his acquaintances, I first met Jim at a bar in downtown Missoula—the Old Post, if memory serves—and the circumstances of our introduction included a ride in a ’69 Plymouth Fury (mine), a shared smoke (mine), and a twisted, rambling commentary on East Missoula at night (his).
I had the good fortune to write an Independent feature about Jim some time ago, after he had bounced back from a malady that nearly took his life. Because of his own ordeal, and of the recent losses of his friends James Welch and Warren Zevon, Jim was in a particularly reflective mood:
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.
And that, to me, is Jim in a nutshell. As sweet a man as he was, he loathed easy sentimentality. Like most writers he understood the impetus of death. Like many hard-living men he continued to act in defiance of that impetus. Like precious few he accepted the consequences of those actions and forged ahead with clear eyes and a great heart.
Opening the front door of Charlie’s—perhaps on a fine spring afternoon—without that searching hope of finding Crumley holding court on a barstool, well, that’s just something we’re gonna have to get used to.
Nick Davis is a frequent contributor to the Indy. His article about Crumley, “Wrote hard, put away wet,” appeared Sept. 18, 2003.
A big heart
Jim was a good person with a big heart. His talent was enormous. He was one of the most gifted writers of my generation. He bore his troubles without complaint, and could make others laugh. How many of us can say the same of ourselves at the end of the road?
James Lee Burke met Crumley at the University of Iowa in 1965, when Crumley attended graduate school with Burke’s cousin, Andre Dubus. The following year both Burke and Crumley were hired to teach at UM. Burke, a New York Times best-selling author, now lives in Lolo and New Iberia, Louisiana. His latest novel, Swan Peak, was released in July.
Leonard the cat
Many thoughts and stories come to mind when I think of Jim Crumley: his parties, chili, Super Bowl games, single malt scotch, Anaheim, and Leonard the cat. But what stands out is his generosity and caring nature. Jim was a friend and an important part of my bookselling success.
Shortly after Fact & Fiction opened, Jim had a publication party for Ralph Beer. The party was at his house; I provided the books. That was my introduction into the Missoula writing community. Six months later, Jim attended a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference in Tacoma. He returned and said he had met many of my friends, who were concerned about my new business; he assured them all would be okay. Both Jim and my fellow booksellers were impressed.
Years later at an American Booksellers Convention in Anaheim, I was walking with several friends to a party when we heard a car horn and yelling. It was Jim and Martha, who had just arrived. They joined us, Jim saying it would be okay because we were “important booksellers” and anyone in our company would be allowed into the party. The irony was we were headed to a Random House party, and even though he was no longer published by Random House, the hosts were delighted that Jim Crumley was in the room.
Every year tourists come to Missoula in search of Jim, going to the Depot, Charlie B’s and Fact & Fiction. In the early days, people would come into the store with titles scribbled on bar napkins. They had been with Jim and he recommended books—usually Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Later, people would come and look at the photos on the wall, searching for Jim and wanting to know how they could meet him. People were amazed that they could look him up in the phone book and actually talk to him. Many people returned year after year to visit.
Jim also had a huge following in France, which sometimes surprised many Missoulians. They would return home and want to know how to get a signed book to send to an innkeeper who was a huge fan. Jim loved meeting people, he wanted to hear new stories, he wanted to meet his readers and his booksellers.
I looked at my collection of his books this weekend and smiled at the inscriptions. Many times he wrote, “Booksellers are the best people,” and once he signed as “Leonard’s dad.” My sons remember Jim for Leonard the cat. Jim was helping the Humane Society by taking a cat that needed to be isolated and given medicine twice a day—something Jim did often. But when he took in Leonard, Jim was headed out of town. Would we do him a favor? Of course we did, and Leonard ended up staying with our family for 17 years. Jim adopted him for us. Jim was a friend.
Barbara Theroux runs Fact & Fiction in Missoula.
The important part of the legend
Jim Crumley is a legend, and a large part of that legend stems from his no-holds-barred lifestyle. He certainly loved to have a good time, and he made that happen wherever he went. His charisma, humor and great heart were irresistible. His writing is pervaded by that spirit. People all over the world recognized it, and fell in love with the man they imagined or knew.
It’s a cliché to say that a crusty exterior is often a cover for a nature that feels sorrow so keenly, it has to protect itself. I’ve never known that to be truer than with Jim. And—another mark of his great soul—it wasn’t just his own troubles that he struggled with, although he had plenty of those. His deep, genuine sympathy for anyone in pain was boundless.
He was confidant to more people than I’ll ever know about, especially those whom society ignored or shunned—stressed-out vets, alcoholics and addicts, working people who were always behind the eight-ball, outright losers. He comforted and counseled them, drank and wept with them, gave them all the tangible help he could. His rage at the uncaring, manipulative forces that hammered them—that shrugged off or even laughed at the crucial human qualities of fairness, compassion, dignity—and his frustration because he couldn’t get those forces by the neck and rip their collective head off, ate into him like an acid bath.
That spirit also pervades his writing. It’s less visible, but I think it’s the real key to the reverence he’s held in, and I’m sure everyone who was close to him would agree that it’s the truly important part of the legend.
Neil McMahon is an author living in Missoula. His latest book, Dead Silver, was published in June.
Good at being friends
I’m driving up the Blackfoot with Crumley in my passenger’s seat and a fellow MFA student, a good buddy of Jim’s, in back. It’s one of those classic blue-sky days, and we’re headed to a party I haven’t been invited to but am going to crash as part of my gently assigned duty as designated driver. I don’t yet know Jim too well—just well enough to have brought along a Coors six-pack and to have these two conflicting thoughts in mind: that I better drive extra-carefully, because I’ve got a local and national treasure beside me. And that if there were ever a time to take the curves going 90, maybe with a whiskey in my cup holder, it is now, because I’m in the presence of Jim, who has lived through enough such colorful stories to make all three of us invincible. I opt to drive slowly. Jim tells his colorful stories. And after a stunner of a sunset hours later, I get us all home safely.
That drive leads to other drives, to other parties, to bellying up at the Depot, to Jim and me—and Jim’s wife, Martha Elizabeth—becoming friends. And the more time I spend with them, both while I live in Missoula and during my visits back in the three years since I left, I realize a couple of things: that what I knew of Jim on that drive up the Blackfoot, about his celebrity and his rowdy stories and his Coors, was merely price-of-entry stuff when it came to really knowing him. And, that he and Martha Elizabeth are exceptionally good at being friends.
Sorry to blow your cover and get sentimental all in one newspaper blurb, Crumley, but it turns out that your generosity, your heart and your partnership with a woman who is long on both herself, trump all the expletives and bourbons that, sure, made for some memorable nights themselves. What rise to the surface for this friend now, though, more than any round of drinks you ordered, are the bear hugs at the beginning and end of a good night out; the hours you and Martha Elizabeth talked not about crazy tall-tales but about life, what you guys had figured out about it and what to keep in mind as I navigate mine; and how one or the other of you always showed up with gifts that literally gave a part of you.
I type this thousands of miles from your stool at the Depot, in a home office with bookshelves draped in Martha Elizabeth’s one-of-a-kind scarves, the shelves themselves holding pieces of her art and rare-edition copies of your books and anthologies with your notes inside for me to get back to Missoula, and to hang tough in the meantime. A different kind of man would have let me remain the designated driver all those years ago—this is a busy world, after all, and most of us would say we already have enough friends. Instead, Crumley, and Martha, too, extended themselves repeatedly and remarkably to this new friend just because that’s the way they’re wired. For a guy who could have hogged the spotlight as often and as brightly as he wanted, Jim illustrated the value of instead using that spark to draw in and look after those around him. There are a ton of ways in which Jim was—and thus remains—a force. But it’s the way he opened himself up to knowing the rest of us that is, to me, the legend that is Jim.
Robin Troy is a former Indy staff writer now teaching in the English department at Southern Connecticut State University.
Lived first, wrote second
The president of the United States could be sitting at that corner in the Depot, and if Jim Crumley came in we’d tell the president to get up and move. We put up a sign the day after he died: “In honor of our great friend, James Crumley. This seat will forever be known as Crumley’s Corner. If you sit here you better be smart and you better be nice.” We signed it “35 years of Depot friends.”
He drank Herradura, Patrón on the rocks, Coors original cans. After his first surgery he went from Herradura to only Patrón—that was all he would drink. Livin’ it up, I guess. Jim lived first and wrote second, for sure.
I could talk about Jim all day. I definitely became pretty good friends with him. We would mostly make fun of people sitting at the bar. Advice? That wasn’t his style. He didn’t think of himself as anyone but just himself. He was brilliant but wouldn’t feel a need to show it off, other than with his wit, which I don’t think he could control.
Crumley epitomized the Missoula posse. He had a crew who were always with him. He might have come in alone, but they would all show up eventually. It was like a rat pack: Roger Hedden, the English department guys, Martha, Bill Kittredge and Annick. At first I was afraid of them. I knew who they were and it was completely terrifying because they were kind of celebrities. Watching those guys talk together it’s like, how could you not realize how special it is to sit behind the bar and just watch those brains joking and laughing? They’re not doing anything special, they’re a bunch of friends, but realizing what they’ve done with their lives and knowing that they still live in Missoula and come to the same places they’ve always come to, and knowing that there’s nothing better than that for them—it’s amazing. It was a good bunch. It still is a good bunch, but it will be different.
Erik Johnson is a bartender at the Depot in Missoula.
Our all-night iconoclast and storyteller
Toward the end I took to calling him Jimmy. He stood it without complaint. There was in Jim, under that blustering energy and growling, a sweetness born of his innate if sometimes blunted respect and affection for most folks who came along.
In the summer of 1970, Jim lived a few days at my house on Central Street in Missoula. My wife at the time, Patricia, grew up around West Coast loggers and called him “Jitney Crummy” (two modes of transport used by timber fallers). She said he was an “all-night timber faller” when he rolled in after daybreak. She was astonished after he moved out. A formal, polite thank-you note arrived in the mail—from Crumley! I never saw another one.
Jim and Patty were members of a club, which believed in the inevitability of extreme risk—“Might as well get on with it anyway, while you’re alive.” But Patty has been dead in San Diego for years. And now, Jim. I cannot help but grieve for lost days and years. He might snort at the sentiment there, or might not. Jim respected people’s feelings. A lot of people are heartbroken by his death, most of all, I’d guess, his wife Martha Elizabeth.
I entered Jim’s hospital room just before he died. Martha was there, touching his poor body as it struggled with his agony. She looked at me, dignity and compassion every step of the way, and said, “We’re almost at the end. Say something to him. Say it loud, so he can hear.” I said, “Love you Jim.” And he twitched. I fled. Maybe I embarrassed him, even then. But I like to think he heard me.
Jim and I knew each other for 40 years and a few days over four months. This is a run at explaining a friendship that got under way at a Missoula party in May 1968. Patty and I were in town for a writer’s conference (Jim taught in Missoula, I was a grad student in Eugene). How’s the song go? …across a crowded room…We recognized one another. A talking and shouting ceremony called “exchanging credentials” ensued. Where you from, what do you want, how you going to get it, what do you think, what do you really give a shit about, what breaks your heart, what do you despise, what do you respect? Not that any of this was spoken about openly at that time or later.
We passed news back and forth through half-sentences and gestures, implications and laughter and evasions and all the strategies of old-boy code talking. We were country kids from the boondocks who wanted to be writers and make good in the so-called “great world,” and we thought we had a chance. We were in this together. The result was trust. I don’t think it ever dissolved. Although there were years when we lived in other movies, years when we never saw one another or were much in contact, it was always there—renewable in moments—and fundamental to my sense of whom I was and am.
So, who, to me, was Jim Crumley, our all-night iconoclast and storyteller? Jim was profoundly talented and properly ambitious, an intense man who was often waylaid by his instinctive generosity and belief in fairness, and the degree to which he despised smug condescension of people who looked down their noses at anybody (a class-based form of bigotry). Jim was vastly energized and sometimes driven halfway crazy as he tried to live with the contrariness of our times, talented and smart, a damnable, cranky sweetheart trying to get those good books written and then get on with the rest of his days.
William Kittredge is professor emeritus at the University of Montana. His novel, The Willow Field, was released last year.