Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ralph Beer, “The Other James Crumley”

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahaerne, 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. 
— The Last Good Kiss

I was somewhat timidly holding a can of Rainier Beer at my first faculty/graduate-student/local writers’ bash in Missoula, Montana, the first time I saw him. It was the fall of 1978, at Lee Bassett’s house, and there, standing above Dick Hugo — who was seated at the dining room table — was this rugged piece of work who looked like a cat skinner or tool-pusher off a Wyoming drill rig. The hard-looking gent made a sweeping gesture with his right hand and shouted: “And then, she said I’d stolen the title — from you!

Hugo went into a rapture of guffaws and the two old bulls roared with laughter together, apparently enjoying an inside joke. I glanced at Neil McMahon, who was standing beside me there in the shadows, also somewhat timidly holding his own can of Rainier. “Who the hell is that?” I said.

“That,” said Neil, who was always in the know, “is James Crumley.”

Jim Crumley will be remembered by lots of folks for his early detective novels and the epic scale of his excesses. He was, for almost forty years, a legendary figure in Missoula’s bars, from The East Gate Liquor Store and Lounge and the poker tables in the Oxford Café in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to Charlie’s and The Depot in more recent years. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people can say they had a beer or toked a fatboy with Jim at one time or another. And it is true that Crumley knew and enjoyed an astonishing mix of people, from Missoula street characters to lovely graduate students recently disembarked from Smith; from part-time carpenters and guys who worked for slim wages in the woods, to a mob of graduate students and writers and artists from all over the country.

James Crumley
Oh, yes, we thought we knew him during those Missoula days in the Eighties, back when a bunch of us spent our days typing away, groping toward a future when we’d be writers and much in demand. The Last Good Kiss was out, and Jim was our bar-room celebrity, our dope-smoking bad boy, our ex-Texan who wrote about people dealing with failed lives and hopeless yearnings right there in Montana, in the manly, crack-on prose that made him famous. Jim had a string of broken marriages, a list of teaching jobs that didn’t last, a bird dog named Bean, and his daddy’s Winchester Model 94, which he would pawn and redeem and pawn again, as his fortunes rose and fell. He was grand company and bear-trap smart without ever seeming especially learned or literary. He had some bad habits and a good heart, and we loved him for both.

Jim died four years ago. Since then his old pals and former loves have taken their turns remembering him in print and on various web sites. Although we knew he’d wrecked his health, and that death was coming, his passing left some of us wounded, nonetheless. The old lion was gone, and that took some getting used to.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, when I lucked into some good times with Jim, he carried himself like an out-of-work-logger, yet he sported a quick mind and great laugh. In other words, the sort of man you’d notice right off in a roomful of people. He was usually the last man on his feet at the parties Missoula writers threw for themselves back then, and he was about the best company you could find for cross-country road trips. But to say he was well-known and widely-liked falls way short of the truth, because so many of us just flat-out loved him and his books with all our hearts.

There was more to Jim Crumley than most folks saw, at least at first. It took a while before he’d let people in. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Crumley outside the usual Missoula writers’ scene, which could get cheesy and inbred. We once drove from Montana to New York City together to attend to bookish affairs that involved agents and editors and going to lunch. Jim and I cut wood at Annick Smith’s place near Potomac, and hunted mule deer at my Dad’s ranch, where Jim used his father’s old lever-action to kill a couple nice bucks. The summer I spent in Missoula working on a novel, we’d get together in the afternoons and drive the backroads, smoking a little of this and that, sipping cold beers and talking. We didn’t talk much about books or writing. We spoke instead of things that mattered, like motorcycles and women and the places we loved.

Sure, the public Crumley shared enough vices with his detective heroes, C. W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovich, that some people had trouble seeing where the man ended and his characters began. Jim’s detectives were tough guys, yet during his years in Missoula, and on the trail of his many travels, Crumley would sometimes open, like the blossom in a prickly pear cactus, to reveal a sensitivity and child-like sweetness that had been there all along, hidden among the thorns. Although in later years he could seem remote and self-indulgent, he was among the kindest and most generous men I’ve known.

So I understand why, when I think about Jim Crumley, I think of him always as a man alive in stories about him, stories in which he was a participant, not an author. I can’t begin to think about Jim as a literary figure or as someone I could reveal by talking about his books. I understand him best, I know, when I close my eyes and see him in motion, doing something gentle or earnest, unruly or funny, some darned thing his friends would remember and retell years later with gusto. Here, then, are three such Crumley stories:

In the spring of 1980, Jim and I decided to drop a few pounds of beer flab. Because we hated to suffer alone, we’d meet up at the Van Buren Street bridge and run together along the grade where the Milwaukee Road’s rails had once headed east out of town. All right, we didn’t exactly run. Like a team of draft horses who’d spent all winter in the barn, we lumbered along, coughing up years of cigarette smoke and hoping our morning would not prove a final humiliation. Crumley, though, was tough and surprisingly steady, a two-hundred-and-forty-pounder who chugged along as if powered by steam. Most days he’d outlast me, until I fell, gasping, into a walk after three miles or so. Then we’d turn and walk back, already talking cold beers and good smoke, while hoping we’d done ourselves no permanent harm.

One bright morning, when we’d finished our run and had walked back almost to the University of Montana, we noticed two young men, dressed in casual wear that seemed a tad preppy, coming toward us with a bulldog trotting at their heels. As we neared them, one of the lads recognized Jim and said, “You’re James Crumley, aren’t you?” And when Crumley nodded, the young man pointed to the bulldog. “Meet Fireball Roberts,” he said.

Crumley couldn’t have been more tickled if they’d given him a prize. He talked with them for a few of minutes, as the bulldog drooled and grinned, and it was easy to see, as I stood and watched, that Jim was every bit as pleased by the encounter as they were. He was like that. Never stand-offish, never condescending, but genuinely interested in the people he encountered. If you spent any time around Crumley back then, it was easy to forget that he was not only famous, but already had the beginnings of a cult following, too.

Jim Crumley will probably not be remembered as a fiduciary wizard. When he had money, he spent it, and he could be generous to a fault. More than once he sent friends airplane tickets so they could meet up with him for a few days of bad behavior. When his bank account dipped far enough into the red, he’d take a teaching job for a year or two. While at the University of Texas, El Paso, he sold the film rights for The Last Good Kiss and sent tickets so Carl Clatterbuck, Neil McMahon, and I could fly down to help him celebrate. After several days and nights of too much Texas-style fun, Crumley took us along to one of his fiction-writing classes. It was the first session of a new semester, a night class, the room packed. Jim decided to read a story rather than just send everyone home, as so often happens after the roll call on those first days of writing classes. His selection was an obscure tale called, “No-Class Chick,” that he’d found, in of all places, Easy Rider Magazine, a glossy motorcycle rag dedicated to V-twin engines, tattoos, and photos of smiling girls holding up their tank tops in pure celebration of breasts.

“No Class Chick” started off as a pretty straightforward quest tale, written in the vernacular of motorheads who live in black T-shirts and ride only American-made motorcycles. The plot went like this: The story’s main character wants to join a motorcycle “club” but is required — as part of his initiation — to carry one of the member’s “chicks” on the back of his Harley from point A to point B, which happen to be a couple thousand miles apart. A minor inconvenience, sure, but certainly not too much to ask of any hard-tail Harley stomper, except that the young lady, who was to be the cargo, suffers a death that is as horribly funny as improbable, on the first day out on the road.

The story’s hero isn’t about to let something as minor as a corpse sidetrack him, so he lashes the poor girl’s body in an upright riding position against the sissybar on his bike and continues the journey with the single-mindedness of a .45 caliber bullet. The body undergoes all manner of indignities and damage as the road unwinds, until, near the end of the trip, the poor lass’s left arm becomes momentarily free in the high-speed slipstream of the bike’s passage, and, flapping crazily, seems, at one point, to be signaling a U-turn into another dimension.

As politically incorrect and insensitive and awful as all this sounds, the classroom boiled with wave after wave of wild laughter. Forty or fifty people were braying and stamping their feet and pounding desks. Really. At some point I looked over at a middle-aged and very respectable-looking Mexican gent sitting next to me, who held onto himself, as if against possible damage, laughing and gasping for air while tears ran rivers down his handsome brown face. We noticed each other with surprise then reared back and howled like great apes. It wasn’t until later that I discovered he was a federal judge there in El Paso.

The story was funny, yes. But in Crumley’s voice it became a mad, convulsing celebration of the absurdity of human endeavor. And that was Jim Crumley in 1984. The kind of man who could wind up a room full of strangers by letting them enjoy a wildly inappropriate story as they delighted in him and each other. There were no pretenses of discovering literature or the secrets of “good writing” that night. But I’ll bet my Triumph that one or two people got so hooked on story-telling that evening, that they put in years of hard work and sacrifice, learning to write well themselves.

And so, one last such moment, one last little Crumley story: On a brilliant spring Sunday afternoon in 1981, Crumley and his lovely wife, Bronwyn, my lady friend, Blue Ballou, and I attended a “sneak preview” of John Boorman’s Excalibur. At last, a big screen version of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur with beautiful young actors reliving the ancient tale of a boy who pulls a sword from a stone and becomes king, a king who is betrayed by those closest to him, a king who is then mortally wounded in a final great battle fought between the forces of good and evil. We four sat up front, as captivated as children in the darkened theatre, while the story, accompanied by the music of Carl Orff and Richard Wagner, unfolded on the bright screen above us.

At the end, in a series of scenes, majestic in their bleakness, Arthur, who lies mortally wounded among the dead on a field of carnage, commands Perceval, his most faithful knight, to take the sword, Excalibur, and cast it into the sea. Percival hurls the great sword out into the smoking waters as “Siegfried’s Funeral March” builds toward a breaking point, then rides back, calling Arthur’s name, only to find the king’s body, moving out to sea through shafts of light, aboard the kind of square-rigged vessel Vikings would understand. And watching over Arthur’s body, stands an honor guard of angelic heralds, clothed in white.

Ralph Beer
Maybe because that moment in the film and the music were so powerful, I glanced over at Crumley, who sat transfixed by this vision of a departing king carried into the light on the ascending force of Wagner’s music. Jim sat there with a most beatific and rapt expression on his face as tears streamed down his cheeks to disappear in the short beard he wore in those days. And I understood, as I looked at him in the reflected light, that Crumley had seen something about kinship and fealty and faithfulness in those final scenes, something brave and noble and honorable that resided in him and probably always had. And I knew then, that in the hard man lived a gentle one with a big heart and a great soul, a man who believed in stories and in good sentences and in characters who come to life. A man who believed in good books and true companions and love. And I knew in that moment that he would be my friend always, and that he would be near the center of my life, forever.

Ralph Beer still cuts ten cords of wood each year in the big woods of Wyoming.

His collection of Montana essays, In These Hills, is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble

Photo credits:
James Crumley photo,
Ralph Beer photo by Maggie Beer
Missoula bar photos, Ron Scheer

Coming up: Therese Broderick, The Brand (1909)


  1. The man can write. And now I know who he based the character Duncan Carlisle on in "The Blind Corral."

  2. I read THE BLIND CORRAL a couple years ago and gave it my highest rating. It's a shame Ralph Beer never wrote another novel. I'd love to read more of his fiction.

  3. Great portrait of a great man. Jim Crumley came regularly to Livingston, where he had his own anointed seat in the Bar and Grille, and conversed with all his acolytes.

  4. This is a wonderful piece. It reminds me of pieces I have read about Jim Harrison. Montana must be full of men like this.

  5. I love Crumley's books and have for years. Thanks for a great post. What fun to have known him.
    (Also I spent winters down by where you live in the Indio, Palm Desert area. Small world.
    Now I live in Malta, Montana and write mysteries for a living.)

  6. Great writing, a fine portrait of Mr. Crumley, and a great post.