One of the benefits of living in the literary capital of the Northwest is the oft-repeated opportunities we get to see this place filtered through an author’s vision and spit out onto the printed page. In western Montana, especially, where “place” is often accorded the honor of a capital P, how the essence of where we live translates into prose is a fascinating question.
The work of local scribe James Crumley is a fascinating study in this regard. On one hand, Crumley’s recently-published seventh novel, The Final Country, features a native Montanan protagonist—the hard-bitten but big-hearted private eye, Milo Milodragovitch–and is set partly in the Livingston area. Though the titular country is a metaphorical one and most of the action takes place in Texas, Crumley’s home state, Milo consistently defines himself as a psychological constituent of Meriwether, Mont., Crumley’s thinly-veiled fictional equivalent of Missoula.
On the other hand, Milo’s world–a seething stew of corruption, greed, violence, double-crossing vixens and assholes, booze and drug use–is so far removed from the reality of most people’s lives that the existence of common ground between reader and character seems nigh impossible, regardless of any shared locale.
Crumley is regarded as one of the finest practitioners of detective fiction for a reason, and it is to his credit that he is able to bridge the gap between such disparate worlds with considerable aplomb. Early on in The Final Country, Milo subdues an unruly drunk with a measured blow to the forehead, “not hard enough to knock him out. Just hard enough to slosh his whiskey-soaked brain back and forth against his skull bones.” In a sense, this is what Crumley does to the reader, delivering a gentle, consciousness-altering whack to the noggin that allows us to enter Milo’s existence as though it were our own.
Crumley’s principal tools in achieving this remarkable task are meticulously constructed windows into his characters’ motivations and an uncanny gift for descriptive prose, manifested through hilarious dialogue and resonant accounts of people and place. Milo himself is a sheer work of genius, a self-indulgent lightning rod for outrageous behavior who somehow manages to come across as decent to the core. In other words, you end up liking Milo–really, really liking him–despite the fact that he’s a two- (and sometimes three-) timing SOB with a penchant for booze and cocaine that would kill a normal man.
Much of Milo’s allure derives from his inherent connection with the downtrodden, the outsiders who don’t fit in. In fact, his gateway into the chaotic whirlwind of events that define The Final Country is a desire to exonerate a mammoth, black ex-con of a crime that Milo knows he did not commit. But rather than simply stating Milo’s affinity for the underdog, Crumley illustrates Milo’s reasoning through a vivid account of an event that occurred in his adolescence, in which he and some drunken buddies chased a black bear cub up a tree during a camping trip:
“We laughed like madmen at the frightened cub, swept by gales of drunken mirth, until I spun and fell on my back at the base of the pine, my mouth wide open. The cub spit straight down into my mouth, a skunky stream of saliva, more solid than liquid, which I swallowed before I could stop. An electric moment. Suddenly I was sober and sorry for the cub. But I couldn’t stop my friends from laughing and barking. I punched and shoved and wrestled them, but they thought I was crazy and wouldn’t stop … I never looked at a bear the same way again–or my friends, for that matter–and never got that wild taste out of my mouth. Leave me alone, fool, it seemed to say, we’re in this shit together.”
Crumley’s ability to draw readers into Milo’s world is buttressed by innumerable descriptive gems, short passages–some ribald, some sublime–that sparkle on the page like pebbles in a clear stream. Consider his description of a murder scene in which the victim was shot in the head: “[T]he heavy round had scattered the back half of his head all over the whorehouse wallpaper and a Troy Aikman poster behind him. A clot of hairy gray matter hung from the quarterback’s upper lip like an incipient mustache. I thought the kid looked better with some hair on his face.”
Later, after Milo had been popped with a stun gun at the hands of a couple of Texas’ finest: “After that, at least I had the pleasure of making them carry me into the almost empty courtroom for my arraignment. I did my best to slobber on their tooled cowboy boots.”
On an enigmatic woman, who eventually becomes a major player in the plot: “Her fine features, framed by coal black hair, seemed chiseled from an ancient marble as pink and bloody as the froth from a sucking chest wound.”
Describing a lawyer buddy of Milo’s, a diminutive man who proves to be an asset to him: “I left Thursby sitting there, his short legs swinging in the air. His feet didn’t quite touch the ground, but his balls surely did.”
And finally, from Milo’s mouth, a condensed critique of our fair state: “’An old friend of mine … tells me Montana would be perfect if it had less February, more barbecue, and some decent Mexican food.”
Now that’s a sentiment most of us can agree with. But for the rest of Milo Milodragovitch’s crazed, chaotic world, you’ll have to make your own foray into The Final Country. Just be sure to buckle up, because it’s one hell of a ride.