Deep in the heart of Missoula 

For James Crumley, home is where the stories are

James Crumley’s latest crime novel, The Right Madness, was written during a time when Crumley fell ill and spent considerable time in the ICU at Community Hospital. Crumley dedicates the book to the city of Missoula, taking a page to thank those who “stepped up to the mark when things went badly for me.” In recognition of the novel’s release on Monday, May 9, the Independent invited University of Montana professor emeritus William Kittredge to write about his old friend and colleague.

Jim Crumley, on station in one of his places, the end stool in the Depot, just to your right as you come in the back door. He sits against the wall, getting into his 10-year-old Macallan, Coors back. “First tonight.” Yeah, but what about this afternoon? He’s talking, laughing, grumping and eyeing the evening. What this is to a great degree about, as pals come along and slap him on the shoulder, is friendships. Crumley takes them seriously. He remembers a first husband’s name, the names of the kids, their dog. It’s important. A novelist’s mind, driven to know where life goes on, and how, even why, cruel or sweet, in all its details. What he doesn’t know, he knows how to find out, or look up. He takes people one at a time, quirk by quirk. Our downtown storyteller. A lot of people in Missoula love him for it.

Crumley earned this regard over decades in Missoula, teaching at the University of Montana in the 1960s, teaching in Arkansas and Fort Collins and Pittsburgh and El Paso and at Reed College in Portland, taking various runs at script writing in L.A., but always coming back. “Missoula,” he says, “town without mercy.” He seems to like it that way. I met Jim in the spring of 1968, at a writer’s conference in Missoula, a lucky trip. I met lifetime friends. I’d call Crumley’s house. His first wife, Charlie, would answer. But Jim wasn’t there, not once. They’d split up. He showed up most memorably at a party on the mezzanine of the old Florence Hotel. Foolishness ensued. Broken glass, a motorcycle wreck, breaking and entering (Crumley’s house in the Rattlesnake, after an impatient wait for him to regroup following the wreck). The rest of the story is his to tell.

The next winter, I was looking for a teaching job. Jim had published his first novel, One to Count Cadence, and gone to teach at Arkansas (better money). I got the job he left. The next summer, he was back, with his second wife, Maggie, and her three children. Flush with money out of the movie business, he showed up with a U-Haul truck, an orange Dodge and three motorcycles (at least that many vehicles), and bought a house on the hill, where he planned to live like a middle-class adult. Fat chance. He asked when I was going to give his job back. “Never.” I said. Crumley laughed.

Clearly, he didn’t want it back. He took his entourage to Glacier Park, and rented a cabin in Polebridge, with the idea that he’d begin his second novel. No luck. Hoping to stem chaos by connecting to the natural life, we hiked in for a few days at Bowman’s Lake with Jim’s buddy from Arkansas, Harold McDuffy. Camping (if you can imagine; we were young). The fellows down the shore forgot to bring food. They had a grocery bag of marijuana, but were too stoned to fish. We had fish galore. A barter culture evolved.

“I ask for truth,” Eric Johnson, deceased and mourned, said in Sammy Thompson’s old Eastgate Bar. “What do I get? Candor.” That’s what you’re likely to hear from Crumley, if you get down to cases about matters of importance. He’s not good at evading the issue, if it’s serious, and he’s even cranky if crossed, or lied to. But he says he learned to be nice at the age of 52. Jim can be generous to a major fault. He’s profoundly loyal, to family, ex-wives, and an extended family of friends scattered all over the country. When his father, Shorty, died after a life of roughneck work in Texas oil fields, Jim was openly brokenhearted. He visits Maggie’s children, adopted long ago, and he took his sons Conner and Chris, from his marriage to Bronwyn Pugh, on a cross-country driving trip to visit his mother, Ruby, in her Texas nursing home. The boys videotaped it all. Jim works at maintaining his connections and keeping the stories straight.

After decades of teaching, adventures in Hollywood, marriages that didn’t take although the women were beauties, Jim is presently settled into a house on the hill in Missoula with Martha Elizabeth, his wife of 12 years (they were married the day after I turned 60, so I remember). Jim counts the days when she’s out of town and he’s left feeding the cats. When he was knocked out and hospitalized with a life-threatening affliction, hooked up to a breathing machine, Martha was shattered but brave and there constantly.

“The worst thing about being a writer,” Crumley once said, “is that no one ever sees you work.” People seem to think the 325-page novel manuscript must have been left on the doorstep by Santa or dropped down the chimney by a stork. How could a guy who is downtown so often, out and around, find the time for all that typing and invention?

Crumley, up in his house, deep in his nights (we imagine; who sees him work?), figures out his beginnings, where, when and who, then follows his characters and lets the story run. He listens to his people talk, not only what they say but how they say it, pays close attention to the voices of his characters, and the look of his own language on the page. It’s work. He didn’t come on that idiomatic and often eloquent prose style by accident. The other day I asked if he was going on a new novel. “The first line,” he said. “That’s enough for now.” He’s found another springboard. This can lead to a lot of pages in a hurry. In Mexico with friends, typewriter on a fireplace mantel, ignoring the run of constant parties, he hammered out the last third of One to Count Cadence. Decades ago, I heard him tell a writing class that novels, and idiosyncratic (crazed) people, are like topcoats, they have pockets where things and thoughts can be hidden, to be uncovered later (or not all). When a story is cooking in his imagination, he watches his characters dance through evasions and recognitions, lying and counter-lying, breaking down, breaking out, honoring both their worst and best impulses. Solving the mysteries (who did what?) is secondary to the mystery that these people might be, and the degree to which they’re responsible for both brutalities and decencies. And, as we the readers explore that one, who we are? The degree to which we are responsible? And for what? How to live?

So there he is, Crumley in falling light, on a late summer afternoon across downtown Missoula, making his deliberate way into Charlie B’s and the years of blue-collar, hippie tradition to be found there. He sits to another first can of Coors, surrounded by friends, listening to voices, remembering, at center in a version of Missoula where fairness counts. One he helps us patch together out of stories, his and ours.

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