from issue #1: ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’ by Peter Doyle

COLD WAR, HOT DOGS by PETER DOYLE

By Billy Glasheen, esq.

It’s September 1956, I’m killing time at the Sydney Motor Club. On stage three big-breasted hula girls are doing a Hawaiian-flavoured bump and grind, backed by a guitar, piano and drum combo. The combo happens to be led by my old pal, Max. The music is a mix of Latin, Hawaiian and show tunes. Not much jazz and no rock’n’roll. They play four sets a night, but no one pays any attention until the final set, when the hoochie coochie girls come on.

But the real business at the Motor Club is the bank of brand new, shiny one-armed bandits. Poker machines. They became legal just one month ago, and the hardheads who run the club are pinning big hopes on them.

Me, I’m just hanging around, hypnotised by the racket of two bobs cascading in and out of the new machines. The Indian hemp cigarette I smoked a while ago isn’t hurting, nor are the scotches and pep pills. And Perkal’s Latin mambo voodoo hoochie-coochie bebop doesn’t sound too bad right now. The dancing girls are doing a piece called ‘the fire dance of the Islands’ which gives the leader of the troupe a chance to show herself off, and that doesn’t hurt either.

She’s a Greek lass from Sydenham, named Helen, but known theatrically as Sweet Leilani, the Polynesian Princess. The truth is, I’m a bit sweet on her, but so far I’m getting nowhere.

Meanwhile I’m earning my keep providing services to the punting fraternity, and occasionally handling goods of doubtful origin. I also supply smoking substances to those who might care for same. Fact: the city’s entire market for Indian hemp is pretty well right here at the Motor Club, in the form of the hoochie coochie girls, the musical trio and my own good self.

The worst fiend of them all is the drummer Lachie Jamieson, a kiwi ex-servicemen who played with blues bands on Chicago’s South Side after the war then washed up in Sydney with a taste for bebop and hard drugs. He buys smoking gear from me on the murray, and now he’s into me for nearly fifty quid, and I’m shitty about it, but the code says you give the benefit of the doubt. I’m hoping to collect a part payment tonight.

Lachie’s got a gang of milk bar cowboys who he’s trained to do chemist busts. There’s a blond psychopath known as Skylight Reggie, and his none-too-bright offsider, the Spruso Kid. Lachie’s taught them how to hop through a chemist’s back window, find the drugs cabinet. He lets them have the pep pills and what have you, and keeps the narcotics for himself. Years later Lachie will claim to have introduced the chemist bust to Australia. Others will disagree. That’s one for the scholars to argue about, I suppose.

10 o’clock and all is mellow. Then the secretary manager tells the band to play a Pride of Erin. They ignore him. He insists. Perkal complies but then plays “Heartbreak Hotel”. This inflames the milk bar cowboys, especially Skylight, who decides now is a good to start throwing punches. Afterwards Perkal and the manager have a screaming row. Perkal storms out, never to return. (They find a continental piano accordionist to replace him the very next night). Lachie loads his drums, disappears without settling up.

But the night isn’t a complete loss. The Polynesian Princess and I have a few drinks after the show, and later she comes home to my flat. She’s a real goer, no risk, and the night is memorable, though not without incident. Helen’s not entirely right upstairs. For one thing, she’s got Elvis on the brain. Elvis this, Elvis fucking that. Even at the height of passion, she’s calling out to Elvis. She can call out to the Patriarch of Antioch for all I care, because like I say, I’m half smitten with her. She tells me later not to get too carried away, because she’s carrying a torch for someone in the old country, but an ancient blood feud keeps them apart. Or whatever.

*

A WEEK LATER I get a telegram. It reads:

IN MELBOURNE STOP OLYMPIC POSSIBILITIES VERY PROMISING STOP BRING MOTOR CAR DANCING GIRLS AND HUNDRED WEIGHT SAVELOYS PRONTO STOP HELEN HAS SAVS YOU FIND CAR
Signed: PERKAL

The opening of the 16th Olympiad is two days away. Australia’s gone Olympic mad. Perkal is carrying out a long held ambition: to sell hot dogs by day and stage a hoochie coochie boogie woogie jazz show by night. He expects that I’ll put my own pressing business matters aside and hie off to Melbourne. But I choose not to take offence at his presumption, because as it happens a trip south with the fair Helen by my side, and a possible earn to boot is just what the doctor ordered.

I ring Helen—she’s spoken to Perkal already and is keen to hit the road. Maureen and Cathy, the other two hula girls, share a flat up the Cross. I drop by, put the plan to them. They look at each other, and smile. “Well, yeah, maybe,” says Maureen. “It’s funny, but we were sort of thinking of something like that anyway.”  She looks at Cathy and Cathy nods.

Things move fast. That night I borrow Lachie’s Customline, which really belongs to Skylight Reggie. In order to avoid unpleasantness I spirit the car away from outside the Motor Club. The boot turns out to be crammed with chemist shop gear, mostly pep pills, and this isn’t too bad a turn either. I fuel up at Barrack Motors, sample a couple of pills then collect Helen and the girls.

We have to stop off at Helen’s family’s house in Sydenham. The old man runs a chew and spew in Enmore and Perkal has clinched a good price on some slightly past their prime but arguably edible saveloys. We’re met by a couple of surly brothers, a mumbling black widow, and Helen’s leering old grandad.

Helen goes inside to pack her things. The grandad shows me out to the shed, where the savs are stored in a freezer.  A greenhouse takes up the entire backyard. Tomatoes, okra, leafy stuff. Something else there too. I stop and stare. A big, sticky, smelly Indian hemp plant. Grandad looks at me slyly. “In October?” I say.

“You like this one?”

I nod non-committally.

“Special for you boss. I give big bag. All fleoss. Ten quid.”

Five minutes later the frozen savs are in the boot, and there’s a paper bag full of hemp on my lap, a lit reefer in my paw. Maureen, Cathy and I pass it around while Helen’s still inside screaming at her family. Then she storms out, plonks herself next to me in the front seat. “One day,” she says, “Elvis is going to come and sort those fucking pricks right out.”

But no one answers her. We’re too fucking stoned.

We hit the Hume Highway at one in the morning, and brother we’re flying.

*

AN HOUR LATER zigzagging up the Razorback. The road is empty except for the occasional Bedford truck lumbering toward Sydney, and the Customline is humming along sweetly. Helen’s twiddling the dial on the radio, and she can’t leave it alone. Bits of hillbilly music are coming to us from Central Queensland, the BBC news from Malaya, someone going 90 to the dozen in Chinese. Arch McKirdy beams in from Christ knows where, followed by some hot gospel raver, then bingo, solid sending rhythm and blues. We smoke another reefer. It’s a warm night. Mayflies and moths are hatching. The stars are out. All is mellow, all is bright.

Electric guitars and drums and jungle moaning. Kind of electric droning. Dig the droning. Going down the other side of Razorback now. The droning gets louder. The singers are really wailing. Dig the crazy beat. The droning is LOUD. It drowns out the radio.  “Stop the car!” Did I say that? Was it in my head?

Saxes honk. Lights flash. Someone hits me on the back of my head. “Jesus, Billy! Stop the fucking car!” The girls are screaming. I pull on to the gravel and we fishtail for two hundred yards, then come to a sideways stop. The cop pulls up in front of us.

“What the fuck’s a motorbike cop doing out here at this hour?”

He’s walking back towards us. Big bloke, about my age, mid-twenties. His teeth are grinding. His eyes are wide. He’s revved up on yippee beans. Same as us.

I sit pat trying to think of what to say, but Helen bounds out of the car. So too Cathy and Maureen. They’re smiling. They sidle up either side of the cop. They turn it on. Two minutes later we’re on the road again, with a warning. Total cost a few kind words from the girls and couple of bottles of pills. He’ll be on nightwatch for at least a month.

*

WE BLOW A RADIATOR hose at dawn. On the road to Gundagai. Five miles, six miles, I don’t know. It’s OK. Still a day up our sleeve. We hitch into town, and book into the TV Motel. Tres moderne, with all mod cons except TV. The girls take a separate room each. I take another. A mechanic goes out to get the car. I’m at the local at 10 am opening time. The girls slip into the ladies’ lounge. They cause quite a stir, in their capri pants and mohair sweaters. A barman fronts them and they go into a pow-wow.

Back at the motel at three in the afternoon. Message from the garage: the hose section has to be to be sent up from Albury. We’re here for the night.

At six I go out at to find a feed. Three or four blokes are milling around the motel courtyard. I find an all right steak sandwich at the Niagara Cafe. Back at the motel there’s a different couple of blokes hanging around. When I come back from the pub at 10 there are 7 or 8 different blokes again. I’m about to tap on Helen’s door, when I hear a man laughing  inside.

The car’s ready in the morning. Nothing is said about the nocturnal commerce. The savs have been sitting in the boot for over 24 hours now.

*

MELBOURNE is all a twitter, like Moomba, the grand final, Christmas and New Years Eve all at once. Which means it’s about as busy as Gundagai was the day before. But there are foreigners and journalists from arsehole to breakfast. And a shifty-eyed breed I know only too well: pickpockets, urgers, spielers. Scoundrels. And an even more shadowy bunch too: anonymous looking nobodies, faces you’d clock and forget in a second flat. But watch them out of the corner of your eye, and you’ll see that they’re watching everything, all the time.

I drop the girls at our digs—a couple of broken down caravans marooned along with a fairy floss stand in a paddock behind a fibro house in Heidelberg. I go back into the city on my own, hit a few pubs. They’ve still got six o’clock pub closing, so I’m forced into the slightly more salubrious sort of nightery: the Savoy Plaza, the Menzies, the Rainbow Room, Scotts Hotel. But they’re not my speed.

Late that night I meet up with Perkal.

“This is Squaresville,” I tell him.

He shakes his head. “You’ve got to know where to look,” he says. “You bring the savs?”

“They’ve been out of the freezer for two days now.”

“They’ll be all right. Nice Customline, by the way. Got any pot?”

*

NEXT DAY we prop Perkal’s hot dog stand—an ancient affair which hitches up to the Customline—outside the gates of the MCG. We get moved on in 10 minutes. We set up outside the Olympic velodrome, same result. Likewise Spencer Street Station. Permits required. Perkal manages to fob off the jobsworth at the basketball court by flashing his musos’ union membership. But a rival hot dog bloke calls a higher-up official, and we’re sent packing again. By the end of the day we’ve sold less than 50 doggies, at a bob each. On the brighter side, the savs themselves seem to be holding up remarkably well.

We’re munching pep pills the whole while, and having a jolly old time of it, despite our indifferent commercial performance. Perkal is spruiking in foreign accents, generally acting the goat. We’ve long since eaten all the little yellow pills, now we’re into these big ugly things, which Perkal tells me are known in the transport industry as “Queensland black bombers”. I’m trying to think when I last had a full night’s sleep.

We finally set up the stand outside the athletes’ village in West Heidelberg, a godforsaken bog of a place. But no one moves us on, and the athletes aren’t too bad a bunch. We get talking to a Hungarian cyclist. He’s eyeing me pretty closely, and I’m about to ask him if what his fucking problem is, when he blurts out, “Please. Can I have the giddy ups, please.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about pal.”

“The pills.”

“They’re vitamins, friend.”

“You help me, I beat bloody Russian sonofabitches.”

So I sling him a few pills, and magnanimously refuse payment. I mean, it’s 1956 and the poor old Hungarians and world affairs and whatnot. But Perkal is unimpressed, says they’re a bunch counterrevolutionary arseholes.

He gets a chance to square up a while later when a couple of Russkis sidle up to us. Big blokes, with buzz cuts. They’re no athletes, that’s for sure. They indicate by means of a none too elaborate charade that they too wish to get hold of some vitamin pills, and they’re willing to press the point. We oblige. Still later a trio of Americans hit us. They have little idea of the local currency and by close of business I’ve managed to trouser a nice wad of pound notes.

Perkal does the rounds of the nightclubs, trying to drum up bookings, but strikes out. That sort of thing might be all well and good in Sydney, they tell him, but down here, boyo, a certain level of taste and decorum is expected and blah fucking blah.

I hit the nightly parties in the athletes’ village, which are pretty well the only action anywhere in Melbourne, as far as I can see. But they’re OK, and the vitamin pills are a great favourite. The Aussie athletes, some of them, are pretty good sports: Dawn Fraser is a brick, of course.

After three nights on the tear I go back to our base in Heidelberg. Another couple of caravans, newer in style, have appeared. The girls have a van each now, spread out around the paddock. There are comings and goings all night long.

After midnight and the Polynesian Princess is sitting outside her van, smoking a cigarette. She calls out to me, would I like to come over for a drink. But, really, by this time, as far as she’s concerned, I’m no longer inclined.

I smoke a reefer on a my own and head off for a stroll.

Frosty grass crackles under my feet. The sky is clear. The stars are bright. Telegraph wires are humming. A dog barks in the distance, and way further off a truck revs low. I see a shooting star. There’s a flickering red glow to the north. I keep walking. Mice scurry in the vacant lots. My steps echo like there are caves deep underfoot. I hear people snoring in their beds. I pass a gasometer and can hear the gas swirling around inside. I see another shooting star, and imagine I can hear it screaming to earth. I head down empty streets, across paddocks, behind the back of factories and wrecking yards, towards the red glow. I don’t see a single person the whole time.

I come to a Golden Fleece service station, on a highway. There’s a café next to it. A couple of trucks and a taxi are parked outside. I go in. Bleary eyed truckies give me an indifferent glance. A juke box in the corner is playing Dean Martin, “Memories Are Made Of This”.

I prop at the counter. A waitress comes out. She has light brown hair, small, even features. It’s whatever hour it is, but she looks like she just stepped out of the sea. She smiles—business like, but friendly. What would you like?

A cup of tea. She brings me a pot, and a slice of toast. I drink the tea, leave the toast. She stays there.

“I like this song,” she says.

“How do they get you to work the late shift?”

“I don’t mind it,” she says.

“You must see some types,” I say.

She shrugs, and pulls out a cigarette.

I offer her a light. She draws on the cig then puts it down, turns sideways and fiddles with an earring. Her eyes are lowered. Her profile is perfect. She turns back, picks up the cig and smiles, like she knows what I’m thinking. In a nice way.

“No car?” she says.

“Just out for a walk. But I have a Customline. Well. Sort of.”

“Does it have a radio?”

I nod.

“Well, if you bring it over,” she says, “I might let you take me for a ride.”

“Maybe I will. My name’s Bill Glasheen.”

“Linda.” She offers her small hand, smiling, and we shake.

I take a cab back to Heidelberg, and it’s a long way. Next morning I step out into blazing daylight, not sure if last night even happened. Helen sees me and turns away, and that suits me just fine.

*

THE WEEK plays out. We never crack more than a few quid a day from the hot dogs, but I’m doing a good trade in vitamin pills and the odd reefer. Olympic records are being broken left right and centre. Then Perkal gets a surprise booking for the Saturday night dance at Heidelberg Town Hall. He assembles a four piece combo.

I see the Polynesian Princess outside her caravan that morning. Her eyes are staring wide, her pupils like pennies. Her hair is streaming out wildly. She looks at me, points accusingly: “Elvis is coming!” she says.

Heidelberg Town Hall at 7.30. There’s already a big crowd inside. Mums, dads, oldies, littlies, and a big mob of louts and loutettes. There are sporting folk too, and hangers on. Secret police. Thugs. Christ knows who else. And they’re still coming.

We set up the hot dog stand outside the front door. “Jesus,” I say to Perkal, “there must be a thousand people in there?”

“Last week they had 2000 here. 3000 people at Moonee Ponds Town Hall.”

“So how come you got the job?”

He looks away. “I was wondering that myself.”

An hour later the mob inside is getting rowdy, which I can hear from outside where I’m flat out selling hotdogs.  The band is plugging away playing a 50-50 mix old time and new vogue, which pleases no one much. There’s booing from the bodgies, and angry shouts at the bodgies from everybody else.

A green Holden with NSW plates pulls up a little way down the street. Skylight Reggie is at the wheel and The Spruso Kid next to him. They get out of the car. Reggie walks up slowly, stops at his Customline parked right outside the hall.

I abandon the hot dogs and nip around the back, but they see me and follow. I slip inside the hall. It’s packed. The PA system isn’t really carrying, and people have stopped dancing. The hoochie coochie girls are performing the Fire Dance of the Islands, which Blind Freddy can see is far too blue, or not blue enough for this crowd. Things are sliding out of control and no one in authority seems to give a fat rat’s arse. I understand now how come they gave Perkal the job: they wanted to get the numbers down.

The bodgies and widgies are down the front chanting “Take it off! Take it off!” and Cathy and Maureen are on the verge of doing just that, and a huge mitt crushes my upper arm, and a Russki gorilla is staring at me saying, “GIVE ME WITAMINS”, so I clock him in the face as hard as I can with my free arm, and he reels back into Skylight and Spruso, who are right there. I’m away, leaving the bunch of them in a tussle, but another couple of Ivans are on my hammer. The yanks are not far off, but there’s no hope that they’ll step in and save me from the commos, notwithstanding the arrangements our respective countries are supposed to have made. The Russki thugs are either side of me but then the crowd magically parts, and through the path appears a bloke I swear is seven foot tall, with a greasy black pompadour, wearing a yellow satin jacket with fancy embroidery on it. He’s knocking over men, women and children like they were nine pins. He picks up a fat Russki and holds him in the air above his head. The band stops playing, the girls stop stripping. The louts stop louting. The giant slowly rotates, still holding the Russian like he was a dumbbell. He turns 180. Embroidered in fancy lettering on the back is “Micky Mavros—the Greek Elvis”.

He hurls the Russian into the crowd, marches onto the stage. He and Helen embrace. They kiss. They exit, arm in arm. The louts cheer.

*

I’M ALREADY out of there. I sprint to the Customline. It smells of putrefying saveloys. I keep going, further down the street to the green Holden. Ignition wires are hanging loose under the dash, next to the Air Chief radio. I get in, make contact and then I’m off. I hit Sydney Road, get to the outskirts of Melbourne, drop a u-ey, backtrack until I see the Golden Fleece sign.

Linda is behind the counter.

“I thought you said a Customline,” she says.

I shrug. “It’s got a radio. Feel like coming for that drive now?” I say.

“Where to?”

“Sydney. Further maybe.”

She looks left and right. “I can’t just walk out…” She drops her cigs and lighter in a bag, “I mean, it’ll take me at least two minutes to finish up here.” She takes a wad of notes from the till. She smiles at me. “My holiday pay,” she says.

We drive all night, don’t stop except for petrol. We talk for a while, then go quiet, then talk again. Either way it feels easy. At five in the morning on the crest of the Razorback mountain the motorcycle cop pulls us up. I sling him the last of the black bombers. He glances at the wires twisted together under the dash, then gives me a look. “Wasn’t me,” I say. “I’m taking it back to where it came from.” He shakes his head, then rides off.

Linda and I stay. We smoke in silence, leaning up against the Holden, our sides touching lightly. In the distance the sky behind Sydney is turning red.

I can see Linda’s looking at me. I turn to her.

“Is this going to turn out badly?” she says.

© Peter Doyle

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
An earlier version of ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’ was broadcast on
The Night Air, ABC Radio National, in 2006.

And see Rhett Brewer’s 2011 painting series The Golden Age, inspired by this story.

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PETER DOYLE lectures in Media Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 (2006, with Caleb Williams) and Crooks Like Us (2009), two books which draw on the forensic photography archives at the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney. He is also the author of three crime novels featuring lurk mechant Billy Glasheen: Get Rich Quick (1996), Amaze Your Friends (1998), and The Devil’s Jump (2001).

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Contrappasso contributors: Peter Doyle

No, that’s not a mugshot of Australian writer Peter Doyle – they haven’t caught him yet. It’s a still from his most recent book of historic Sydney police photographs, Crooks Like Us (Historic Houses Trust, 2009).

Man of a thousand talents, Peter Doyle is also a crime novelist. His three Billy Glasheen novels – Get Rich Quick (1996), Amaze Your Friends (1998), and The Devil’s Jump (2001) – scope out Sydney’s postwar underworld with dead-accurate period lingo and mean street attitude. It’s the straight dope on the Menzies era brought to life through the shenanigans of hopped-up rock n’ rollers, wild bodgies, pill-popping con artists, and sintime beatniks. The Glasheen trilogy is some of the best Australian historical fiction on the shelves.

Contrappasso is thrilled to present another installment of the Glasheen saga, ‘Cold War, Hot Dogs’, in issue #1. The story will appear here at the website tomorrow.

But first, check out writer Fiona McGregor’s recent career appraisal of Doyle, Peter Doyle’s Sydney: Crooks Like Us.

And this video:

from issue #1: Poetry by Paolo Totaro

GENTE DI BALMAIN (BALMAIN PEOPLE)

Translated by Theodore Ell

Peter 

Tu sai che c’è, perchè il tuo cane corre
a cercare morselli che lui lascia
affidati al grande Moreton Bay Fig.
Lo sai, perchè se ascolti a notte piena

dalla verandah alla strada svuotata,
senti il coperchio del tuo garbage bin
che si apre e chiude col leggero fruscìo
del già rifiuto risignificato.

Una grotta nell’asciutto limestone
sulle rive del fiume Parramatta
ben ornata da edere gli è casa,
ma sopra quella roccia, comperate

all’asta, compatte altre case. Gente
altrimenti sicura che nei sogni
si sente minacciata dalle volpi
volanti e grida muta “Come back!”

Peter lascia un pochino delle cose
per i pets delle case arroccate.
Lo dice russo o forse ungherese
chi l’ha sentito e di voce sottile

e di pochissime parole accentate.
Lento di piede, solennemente
si muove come un vescovo ortodosso
odora d’incenso e forse lo è stato.

[You know he’s there, because your dog dashes
to look for titbits he leaves out
at the big Moreton Bay Fig.
You know, because if you listen deep in the night

from the verandah into the empty street,
you hear the lid of your garbage bin
opening and closing with the slight rustling
of something thrown away reacquiring meaning.

A cave in the scorched limestone
on the banks of the Parramatta river
garlanded with ivy is home to him,
but above that rock, purchased

at auction, compacted other houses. People
otherwise secure who in their dreams
feel menaced by the flying
foxes and cry out silently “Come back!”

Peter leaves a little of anything
for the pets of the unwelcoming houses.
They say he is Russian or perhaps Hungarian
the ones who have heard his soft accented voice

and not many words spoken.
Slow of step, solemnly
he moves like an orthodox bishop
redolent of incense and perhaps he was.]

Paddy

Che lotta mantenersi rilevante!
Fu stato giornalista e vive ora vestito
di fuliggine nell’angolo più oscuro
del Riverview Pub. Raro sorriso

non traguarda, non ti dà a vedere
altro che due lenti tonde nere
ed un vago senso di minaccia
oltrepassata. Che lotta mantenersi

ancora vivi! E quanto più feroce
l’immagine di un se che ormai trascorre
indefinito. Infagottato, rubizzo
forse si vede chiaro acciaio

d’ironia che non perdona
e non dà trregua mentre gli altri
non vedono che un gozzo.

[What a struggle to stay relevant!
He had been a journalist and now lives coated
in grime in the darkest corner
of the Riverview Pub. He aims no

rare smiles, gives nothing away
but two black round lenses
and a vague sense of menace
overcome. What a struggle to stay

a little bit alive! And even more savage
the image of an if which now runs on
undefined. Muffled up, hearty
perhaps it is possible to see a clear steel

of irony which does not forgive
and gives no quarter while others
see nothing but a goitre.]

Mary

Curva sul trabiccolo
di legno consumato
camminava lenta
verso il rendevù

quotidiano col sole,
quando calmo sottinde
gli orizzonti spianati
di questa città pigra

senza salite o discese
e senza male né bene.
Vergine d’ogni peccato
trascinava scarpe slabbrate

già della sanvincenzo:
scialli gonne scialletti
mollemente gonfiati
dal pochissimo vento.

E non mancava eleganza
come in tutta l’antica
povera gente, di qui
o immigrata. È lo stesso,

non t’offrono pupille
ma radi sordi ‘gooday’
a te che il suo quartiere
glielo hai gentrificato.

Erano il suo comitato
due gatti, quello roscio
e quello variegato.
Li sgridava gentile

se aveva energia:
“Piccirì… ehi Pussypussypù.”
Tre passi e poi fermata
serpeggiando i codoni

l’aspettavano galanti,
occhi onesti fissati
su lei preziosa providora.
Vent’anni in Sicilia.

Venne sposa. Fu morto.
Poi anni nella fattoria
della cioccolatte Nestlé
costruita su una insenatura

del Parramatta River;
certo a volte smellava
ma dava da che vivere
a un intero quartiere.

Ai gatti parlava sempre
meno e sempre più alla mente
voci antiche, e le nuove
che non sa più decifrare.

Se ne è andata silenziosa
come è vissuta e dicono
era la casa senza bagno.
I gatti sopravvivono.

Alla morte si arriva sempre tardi.

[Bent over the cart
of eaten wood
she would walk slowly
towards the daily

rendezvous with the sun,
when it calmly underlines
the flattened horizons
of this lazy city

without rises or descents
and without evil or good.
A virgin to any wrongdoing
she shuffled in shoes

already tatty from Vinnies:
shawls skirts scarves
billowing minutely
in the very little breeze.

And she didn’t lack elegance
as with all old
poor people, from here
or immigrants. It’s the same,

they don’t offer pleading
but the odd muted ‘gooday’
to you who gentrified
their suburb on them.

Her committee was
two cats, the bastard one
and the mottled one.
She kindly scolded them

if she had the energy:
“Piccirì… ehi Pussypussypù.”
Three steps and then still
their tails snaking around

they waited for her gallantly,
honest eyes fixed
on her the precious provider.
Twenty years in Sicily.

She married. He died.
Then years in the factory
of Nestlé drinking chocolate
built on an inlet

of the Parramatta River;
sure it smelled at times
but it gave that bit of a living
to an entire suburb.

To the cats she spoke less
and less, with more ancient voices
to her mind, and new ones
she forgets how to decipher.

She went away in silence
as she lived and they say
the house had no bathroom.
The cats survive.

At death you always arrive late.]

TECHNIQUE

Technique in poetry
is like undergarments.
They show
if only as an elastic band
and they spoil the mystery.
What’s seen
is evidence
for the more that’s not.
The unseen should induce
an inner grin of complicity
and maybe an upbeat downbeat
miracle of sense awakened, of a plea
that more is less in flesh and words.
More is the giving
that’s covert
but with reason:
not too much cloth not too much meter
but precise
to transport only the weight
of real flesh
not tattooed.

AT THE AGE OF SEVENTY-NINE

At the age of seventy-nine, I decided to be old. Again.
Closing the flood-gates of imagination was as easy
as gathering the next harvest of easy dreams,
or for the wet nurse licking my eyelids to make me well again.

It’s a question, she foretold, of suspending belief and interest,
of closing books, of not caring about broken light bulbs,
of twisting the memory of career into caring.
True, opening the gates to old age wants no will-power

but only a shifting of attention. Maybe from the grass
and the honey-bees and the games of children
to the slaughter of inner cells, to the stifling of easy breathing.
At the age of seventy-nine it is fitting to play one’s age,

to run less miles, to chide the wandering eye
and accept that there is no more a case for far-out
alternative destinies. It is like a broken vinyl disc
the dent, its ‘click’ commanding the same note

to repeat, the same bar, the same image to awake,
colour, taste, gesture, kinship, tree-bending.
The tiring shift of attention from Abraham to Jeremiah
and back again, with maybe even a slow-darting

across to Marx, replaces the quick grasp in a second fleeting
of the conundrum. Luckily, the explosion of flashing Lordly
words across the quiet sipping of breakfast juice
—prayers now come cheap—means that all won’t end in doubt.

 © Paolo Totaro

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *

ABOUT THE POET

PAOLO TOTARO, born in Naples, Italy, lives in Sydney and has been writing since the ’60s poetry in both English and Italian. He was Foundation Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW, a Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, a contributor to The Bulletin, Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Pro-Chancellor and Member of Council of the University of Technology, Sydney, among other positions. His main interest has been human rights. A practising chamber musician, of late he has concentrated on poetry. He has published a novella in Italian, Storia Patria (1992) for which he won the Due Giugno Literary Prize; Collected Poems 1950-2011 (2012). He has also been published in anthologies of Italian Australian Poetry; in Two Centuries of Australian Poetry, Oxford University Press (1994), Crearta(1998), Quadrant (2013, 14), Contrappasso (2012, 2013); Le Simplegadi (2012): Water Access Only (2012),ARC/Cordite Special Book on Australian Poetry (2014) and several other. A collection of bilingual poetry about children and war is nearing completion.

One week from launch party in Sydney

A reminder! The official launch party to celebrate the first issue of Contrappasso, a new independent magazine of international writing, is Wednesday 1 August at Sappho Books, 51 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe in Sydney.

The launch begins at 6.30pm. Expect readings from our contributors Paolo Totaro, jet-setting Vanessa Berry, Lindsay Tuggle, and others. Buy a handsome paperback copy for $10 and get it signed by our august contributors. See what’s happening on the margins of the publishing industry.

from issue #1: ‘An Interview with James Crumley’

ALWAYS LOOKIN’ FOR A BOOK, LOOKIN’ FOR A TITLE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES CRUMLEY

Noel King

Missoula, Montana
21st September 2005

KING: Could you say something while I check the sound level is OK and I’m getting it clearly?

CRUMLEY: It’s September 21st, the last day of summer in Missoula, Montana, and I can see the snow in the future!

KING: Your latest book, The Right Madness (2005), takes its title from a Richard Hugo poem, “The Right Madness on Skye,” and a much earlier book, The Last Good Kiss (1978) took its title from some lines in another Hugo poem, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.”

CRUMLEY: I get all my good titles from Hugo poems.

KING: Was there any particular reason for you to return to Hugo poetry references after thirty-some years?

CRUMLEY: The Right Madness is a book I started back in 1975, somewhere back in there, and I was looking for a title. You know, I’m always lookin’ for a book, lookin’ for a title. And I was goin’ through my Hugo collection and somehow that last stanza of “The Right Madness on Skye,” where the poet plays dead, somehow that stanza and the idea that in my book the shrink was going to play dead, got the book going for me. I started the book so long ago that I was still playin’ Flag football instead of softball! I always think it’s a kind of homage to use somebody’s line of poetry or a line from a book as a title. I already had my own voice when I met Dick, because I had half of my first novel done, but I’m sure that the way he handled language and his approach to poetry influenced my approach somewhat. You can’t deny influences. And I love “Skye.”

KING: Did you make a research trip to Scotland for this novel?

CRUMLEY: No. I went to see Dick on Skye when The Wrong Case (1975) came out, and I went back seventeen years later, after Dick was dead, just to go. I didn’t know then that I was going to write this book. I never know when I’m going to write a book! Skye is just one of those places that helps you understand why some of the Celtic twilight myths are like they are. Some of that shit makes you think about magic. So long as you don’t have to believe in it, I guess it’s OK.

KING: Hugo says he started his mystery novel, Death and the Good Life, on Skye, so that’s a nice overlap.

In the prefatory section for The Right Madness you explain that you had a heart operation while writing the book, and thank medical staff, your wife Martha, and other friends for helping you come through it. How far into the novel were you when you had the heart operation?

CRUMLEY: I was about half way through and Martha was out of town, away at a conference. I was mostly layin’ around the house, watching TV and reading. I hadn’t been out much, hadn’t been carousing, and I noticed when I was taking a shower that I was suddenly short of breath. And getting in the car turned out to be a job. I got to the airport to collect Martha and as I was walking back to the car I told her something was wrong. She told me I should go to the doctor immediately, so I went the next day, a Monday, and I guess it was another week and I went into hospital. They couldn’t get the fluid out of my system. My heart and lungs were completely full of fluid and by the time I did go to the hospital the CO2 in my blood was like 70%, which is supposed to drive you insane. There was this wonderful charge nurse in the ER who said, well Mr Crumley, I might have to put you on a ventilator. And I said, what if I don’t want to be on a ventilator? And she said, well, in two or three hours you’re gonna turn blue, and two or three days later you’ll be dead. So I said, OK! It was kind of an unsatisfactory experience because they never found out what really happened. And also, this whole notion of cutting a hole in my heart sheath to let the fluid drip out struck me as silly. In hospital, the nurses are the ones who keep you alive. The hardest part was getting over the paralytics they give you to keep you still when you’re getting the ventilator put in. Those paralytics are tremendously raucous drugs, and they gave me some of the wildest hallucinations I’ve ever had. But a lot of people stood up and helped me at that time, took care of things, because we were on benefit money for about eight months or so.

KING: With The Right Madness you moved from Mysterious Press to Viking. What kind of deal is it?

CRUMLEY: It’s just a couple book deal.

KING: You have your two successful, much-loved characters, Milo and Sughrue, in their separate series, and together in Bordersnakes. How do you know if you are into a Milo or a Sughrue book?

CRUMLEY: I pretty much let the book decide, whichever voice comes up. The Final Country had to be a Milo book. I wanted Milo to go to Texas. And this one, The Right Madness, was always a Sughrue book, I don’t know why. It’s not always clear cut, it usually takes me 100 pages to figure out what the hell’s going on and whether I’m going to finish a book.

KING: Can you provide some time-line information here? The Crumley fan buys a book in 2001, The Final Country, which derives from a much earlier time. You once referred to The Muddy Fork as ‘the endless Texas book I never finished’. How long had The Final Country, been gestating, bumping around in there?

CRUMLEY: A long time! But this process goes way back. At one time The Last Good Kiss was a Milo book, the go-back-to-Texas book. At that time I wanted out of my teaching job and my agent said, ‘this book is more movieable than any of your others.’ And so it became a Sughrue book.

KING: I gather in part that has to do with ownership of the character once a book is sold to Hollywood. You mentioned that you have now given the movie option on The Last Good Kiss to a young person.

CRUMLEY: It’s with this kid, Justin, who worked for Jerry Bruckheimer for years, doing all this stuff, like running a hockey tournament. His father was a student up here, and he gave him a copy of The Last Good Kiss, and by using Bruckheimer’s name Justin was able to get into the files at Warner’s, which not even my agent could get into! And he found out that the rights to The Last Good Kiss had reverted to me in 1998 or 1999. And he said, ‘Let me flog this around, see what I can do.’ So I gave it to him for a dollar. I guess it was two and one-half years later he found someone who said he was tired of seeing John Woo movies, and said this looked like a movie movie. It just seemed like a better chance for it to be made into a movie instead of a piece of Hollywood shit.

KING: You’ve had a lot of dealings with Hollywood over the years, ranging from stalled adaptations of your own books—I’m thinking of the myriad detours of Dancing Bear which saw it go from Tim Hunter to eventually wind up with Robert Towne—and you have also written screenplays. What opinions have you formed about Hollywood after these many years of contact?

CRUMLEY: If you back up into a room in Hollywood with your britches down and something odd happens to you, it’s not their fault!

KING: That’s a nice modification on Raymond Chandler’s comment that one should always wear one’s second best suit in Hollywood. You’ve moved it along to not wearing any trousers!

CRUMLEY: I don’t know how to live in a world where there are people who will sign contracts and then say, ‘I didn’t mean that at all.’ I signed a contract with a guy to do a script from a book I really liked, Yellowfish, about smuggling Chinese. The contract had gone between lawyers and agents and been signed and suddenly, not only does this guy not call me but his office phone has been disconnected. Using some of my less reputable friends I discovered where the guy is. He’s staying with somebody out in Malibu and I called the number and he happened to pick up. And I said, ‘look dipshit, I don’t mind you lying to me, I’m a writer, writers lie all the time, but you also lied to my agent and he’s my friend. So if you don’t call him up this afternoon and apologise I’m going to be on the next plane to LA and break your goddamn legs.’ And he believed me! So he called up my agent and apologised. So that part’s right, it’s fixed up.

Six years later I meet the guy in a bar at Chateau Marmont and he acts like we’re old buddies. So I have to take him aside and say, ‘remember I’m the guy who said he would break your legs, I might have killed you. You have to remember that I meant that and I still mean that, so you’d better get away from me.’ Greed is an ugly emotion. I can’t believe there are people who are like that. They do it all the time in Hollywood. I’ve gotten so I won’t eat with them any more. Every dinner meeting is the same. First you talk about how radical you were in the 60s. Then you get to the part where the cake and coffee are gone and then you talk about the deal. I won’t do any of that. I won’t take breakfast, I won’t take lunch, I won’t take dinner. Do it in the office. It’s a business, and if the chances are good, your lawyer ought to be there too.

KING: Montana now has a fair number of film people living in it, full-time or on a regular basis. I think Wim Wenders shot some of Don’t Come Knocking (2005) in Montana.

CRUMLEY: There’s enough crew in Montana to mount a $25 million movie in a weekend, with just a Montana crew. But I think people who live in Montana live here because they’re attracted to this kind of life, not that kind of life. Jim Cottsdale lives down in Hamilton and Jake Eberts, who produced A River Runs Through It, still lives in Livingston. A long time ago somebody said, everything in America would be better if it weren’t centred in one place. Publishing would be better if it weren’t all in New York, automobile manufacturing would be better if it were all over the country, instead of only in Detroit. I think that’s fair. At least in Montana when you start whining about the movie business you can usually find someone to commiserate with you.

KING: You were mentioning the book tour for The Right Madness. What cities did that involve?

CRUMLEY: It was two nights in San Francisco, and one night in LA, mostly in traffic jams, thirty-six hours in Mississippi, Phoenix, Arizona when it was 109 degrees, and Denver and Boulder in Colorado.

KING: Do you like doing book tours?

CRUMLEY: Nobody likes doing them, you just do them. I took my wife Martha along. We had a good time, we got to eat well, and saw old friends. The last night, in Denver, we sort of wandered into a restaurant in the street down from our hotel, and ran into an old friend of mine who makes low budget movies. So we had a nice meal, a $100 bottle of wine, the waiter joined us! He wanted to be a stand-up comic. That part of it is always fun. It’s just that I’m too old for this stuff. I was always too old.

KING: ‘You were born old,’ as they say of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.

CRUMLEY: I was born with a moustache.

KING: Last time we spoke you mentioned that you had enjoyed a book tour of England, going to London and Manchester and other cities. You didn’t tour England with this book?

CRUMLEY: When I went last time I split the expenses with the publisher. It was mostly just an excuse to go to England. Whoever did The Final Country in England, this time Harper Collins beat them by a thousand per cent, so I figured it was time to move on.

KING: When we last talked we mentioned the French documentary made on you, and the publication of a corrected French translation of The Last Good Kiss, which fixed up an earlier version called The Drunken Dog.

CRUMLEY: That first translation was so bad that a ‘topless bar’ became a ‘bar without a roof.’

KING: What other languages are you translated into? Have you been translated into German?

CRUMLEY: They’re not too interested in me. The only time I’ve been in an overseas best-seller list was when The Last Good Kiss was retranslated and published in Italy. It had a pink cover with a broad in a bikini on the front and it was number 5 on the list of best-selling translated novels. The Right Madness is coming out in Italian.

KING: In part I was asking because we now have presses like Europa, Bitter Lemon, Serpent’s Tail, Harvill, all busily translating into English crime fiction from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, South America and so on. I was wondering about movement the other way.

CRUMLEY: Most of my books are in Greek, and in Finnish.

KING: Maybe Aki Kaurismaki or his brother Mika will film one of your books!

CRUMLEY: One of the great sculptures in Montana is by a Finn, a guy named Rudy Autio, from Butte, who Peter Voulkes and the other guy found in the brickyards. So he goes to Finland quite often, and he does things like tiled walls for Japanese people who send over a 747 to pick the stuff up; they truck it to Spokane.

KING: You have mentioned that you enjoy the play with literary language as a crucial part of delivering your crime fictions.

CRUMLEY: If the language isn’t any fun, there’s no sense in writing the book. Stories come and stories go, but good language lasts forever.

KING: You have also said you enjoy working playful and flamboyant dialogue into some of your screenwriting work.

CRUMLEY: I have two favourite lines in this last movie I worked on. “I’d rather suck a wino’s sock than eat a lizard,” and “I’d sure hate killing you but I wouldn’t mind blowing your toes off.” I could have had a lot more fun like that if the producer and director had left me alone. They were just idiots. It was a rich girl wantin’ to make a movie for her friends, it was a dead deal from the start.

KING: I see you have continued to blurb some book that you like or some books by people you like. I enjoyed what you said about Daniel Woodrell’s Woe To Live On – “Woodrell knows wonderful and funny and degenerate things that speak to the best of the human soul in the worst of circumstances.”

CRUMLEY: I figure that when someone does you a nice favour when you are a kid, you don’t owe them back the favour, you owe it to the next kid who comes along. So I take time over those things. The last book I blurbed was a book about a soldier in Baghdad, a memoir about a kid who kept getting deployed, and  deployed. It’s called The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, and it’s a book with no bullshit about it, no heroics, just about doin’ the job, and the true toll that George Bush Jr’s little fuckin’ misadventure is costing our kids. This last book I blurbed came about because my editor has an editor friend at the same conglomerate, I think it’s Riverhead Press, and so it came in the mail, and I was overpowered by it. When I really like a book I take some time and try to come up with something right, I try to figure out what the essence of the book is and then I try to say something that means something.

KING: So how do Scott Phillips, Craig Holden and Daniel Woodrell come to be blurbed by you?

CRUMLEY: I’ve known Scott for a long time…

KING: Not like you knew Craig Holden, who says he used to mow your lawn.

CRUMLEY: Craig was a graduate student here. He used to house-sit for me. His first book was really terrific.

KING: The River Sorrow. I thought it was really good, and I didn’t understand why Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, also a very good book which became a good Sam Raimi film, would be so readily adapted by Hollywood and The River Sorrow ignored. At that time I think Hollywood was trying not to depict drugs explicitly in its films so maybe The River Sorrow fell by the wayside for that reason. It was around that time that Bright Lights, Big City was adapted and it had problems with working out how to depict cocaine addiction in a restrained, acceptable manner. But you blurbed Craig’s next book, The Last Sanctuary.

CRUMLEY: About the religious people. I didn’t think anybody else understood that book. Again, I thought it was a terrific book. It’s not work to blurb terrific books. But mostly, my blurbing, it’s just accidental stuff. I’m not sure how I came to blurb Pelecanos, maybe it was because his editor was trying to get him to have a cross-over book. George is one of my favourite people and I just love those books of his. I got to interview George in the Bahamas once, and I liked what he said about Shoedog. It was written to be the kind of book a working man could put in his pocket and read in his lunch hour. He has all the great titles. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go! George is a terrific guy and I just love those books, all that information about music and cars! I’m the kind of pinhead who likes the cytology chapter of Moby Dick, I like information. So I’ve been reading George steadily since I first discovered him. Maybe it was Dennis (McMillan) who put me on to him.

KING: Well, Pelecanos returned the blurb favour with a beautiful, and true, description of The Final Country. How did you and Scott Phillips come to meet?

CRUMLEY: I met Scott when I was working in L.A., staying at The Sportsman’s Lodge in the Valley. Scott was trying to break into the screenwriting business, and he was staying with his aunt who lived not too far away. We met in a bar at The Sportsman’s Lodge and spent some time together. Then he went back to Paris and I saw him in Paris several times. I’d never seen anything he’d written until The Ice Harvest.

There’s a guy over there (in The Depot), Mike Lancaster, sitting in the corner, I’ve known for five years or so. He came up the other day and said he’d finished a novel, would I take a look at it. I said yes. You see, I have a deal in this town, for a six pack of beer, I will read 20 pages, as long as I don’t have to take it home. I won’t put it on my desk, I won’t keep it, I’ll read it and tell you what I think. It’s amazing how few people take me up on it!

KING: Well, in the posthumous Hugo collection The Real West Marginal Way, Bill Kittredge says he had a friend who used to demand, in the 1970s, that he get at least $5.95 for a poem because that was then the price of a bottle of Jim Beam, and a poem had to be worth as much as that.

CRUMLEY: The other thing is, I won’t read anyone’s novel, friends excluded, for less than $5,000, and it’s $10,000 if I say anything about it. I don’t want to spend my time doing that, I didn’t get into this business to be a teacher, although I enjoyed that when I did it for a while. I used to tell my students that if you write seriously, and you take it seriously, and even if you fail, you will walk differently the rest of your life. And if you have any luck you will know those people in your head better than you know your mother and father, your sister, children, wife. Those people live in your head.

KING: As Milo and Sughrue have been in yours for thirty years now, and you are letting them grow old across the books, and sometimes have quite inventive sex as they age!

CRUMLEY: Sex is just for fun. What the hell, old people get to rock! That reminds me of a friend who had a wonderful poem about leaving old people alone so they could fuck. With Milo and Sughrue, I know it’s not the usual way it happens in a lot of crime fiction, but I let the guys grow old. I always think of Milo as the best part of myself and Sughrue as the mean redneck part of myself. In my head, they’re two distinct characters and I happen to know them better than the other fifteen thousand characters that live in my head. With their aging, well, unfortunately it’s a lot like life, the outcome is often unpleasant, you get old and die, and disappear. That’s such a frightening prospect that millions of people spend millions of hours trying to make up some kind of version of life where you get out of it alive! But that’s not true, you don’t get out alive so you might as well try to have some fun this time because there ain’t gonna be no next time.

KING: You only get to go around once…

CRUMLEY: Isn’t that a Schlitz commercial!? I’m not kidding about having those characters in my head. I sit here (at the Depot) in this chair and watch people walk past, and look at their shoes. I never write about shoes, but shoes help create character. When I was first writing I used to do fifty pages of extensive notes to get a character to come to life. But it’s  just the luck of the draw. I’ve always had a knack for the organisation of the written word, and a knack for character, mostly because I’m a psychotic! Most people like me would be institutionalised. I haven’t been institutionalised for many years. I went into therapy about twenty years ago. It was a terrific experience and what I know about therapy is that nobody actually knows why it works. This nice middle-aged woman somehow magically, it seemed like magic, in the space of six to eight months, stopped this endless anger that I’d had for so many years. I used to hate bein’ smart. Into my 30s I would still get drunk and feel bad and beat my head on the board. Luckily I have big bones so I never hurt myself. I hated being smart as a kid, I’d get picked on, and that’s how I learned to kick ass and take names. That’s why I like living in Missoula. It’s so much easier to live in a town with smart people. I read a wonderful essay recently by this Harvard professor, “Democracy and Anti-Intellectualism in America”, and it’s a really wonderful description of why rednecks hate us. We take shit seriously that they don’t think about and we laugh at shit that they take seriously, that’s a bad crib but it’s a wonderful essay.

KING: On you and Texas, there seems to be a long, continuing ambivalence on your part.

CRUMLEY: When I was a kid it was in the constitution that you couldn’t speak Spanish in school, except in Spanish class. Now what does that tell the 65% Mexican Spanish speaking populace of my hometown? It tells you you’re a second class citizen. We hear a lot of idiot talk about freedom but this is a tremendously racist country, always has been.

KING: You were saying that you start the day by reading The Guardian online, as I do. I like it for lots of reasons but one is that it offers perspectives on international issues one doesn’t always find in Australian, or US journalism. I like the London Review of Books for similar reasons.

CRUMLEY: I read The Guardian every day. I don’t know how somebody starts with my background and decides there’s something European about them! This started really early on. I remember coming back from the Philippines and arguing with my dad’s bosses about idiotic religious shit. That’s when I thought I was an agnostic, or more a committed atheist. Back around 1955 I played in one of the first integrated football games in the state of Texas, the reason being that we were playing at the Corpus Christi College Academy, which was the Catholic school, and they couldn’t play on Friday, they had to play on Thursday. We had only integrated because the county had run out of money to run the bus for black kids. This was also during the “one riot, one ranger” line in Cleburne, Texas, a riot about integration. Texas still is not a pleasant place in all of its nooks and crannies. As for writing, something happened to me somewhere along the way, I don’t know exactly what it was. My folks didn’t read but I always read books. I never imagined writing one until I was about twenty-five, I guess.

KING: And you just happened to get into the best creative writing program in the country.

CRUMLEY: They’d let anybody in! I couldn’t get in now! So much of it is luck, but first you have to be talented and then you have to be willing to work really hard. That’s one of the things where I really had an advantage. I was the kind of kid who would keep rewriting, I would rewrite until I felt I liked it. For me, that’s when the good things happen, in the rewrites. You go back to a scene and discover a thing that you missed. Maybe it’s just an aside or maybe it’s just another way to look at it, but for me rewriting has always been the good part. But it’s also the hard part and it’s also one of the reasons I’m such a slow writer.

KING: And many contemporary publishers are keen to have writers deliver books every couple of years.

CRUMLEY: A local writer wrote very tight, readable books, and then she got married, had a baby and moved to North Carolina. She said, “I don’t want to write a book every two years,” and I thought, what a good, brave woman she is!

KING: You have been around the publishing industry for almost forty years now. Do you have any comments on how it is at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I never knew how to deal with publishers until I worked in Hollywood. I treat New York publishers exactly like I treat Hollywood executives. I have no respect for them, it’s all in the cheque, let me see the goddamn money, money talks, bullshit walks. Just in the last two to three years I’ve watched Jon Jackson, Neil McMann, George Pelecanos and they’ve all lost their publishers, they’re orphaned, gone, they didn’t sell enough books. The only reason I’ve managed to avoid that is because I have a reputation, it’s not because of sales. I found out, sort of by accident, that I was the only genre book that my editor was doing last year. She’s new to me, Molly Hollister at Viking, we’ve never met, she’s terrifically hard-working, and it’s quite nice to see an editor who works hard. It would have been better if we had known one another, face to face, that kind of thing. The relationship between you and your editor is a bit like a marriage in that there has to be some give and take and there have to be some places beyond which you cannot go.

KING: Have your experiences of being edited by different people across all your books over the years yielded any ideas about what is constant and what changes?

CRUMLEY: Each has been different. When I finished my first novel (One to Count Cadence) they wanted to cut 160 pages out of it. You know, that’s just not right. I won that one. You have to be willing to listen, you have to deal with these people, they have to deal with their group. I mean, you want your editor to be on your side at the meetings because that’s what it takes to get a book into a salesman’s hands, because the salesman are just salesman, they’re not necessarily book readers. You just have to know when to bow your neck and resist, and when to say, OK, I’ll take another look at it. I’ve always thought that because editors have never had to teach creative writing, they don’t know how to talk to writers about what maybe should happen next. They just know that something’s wrong and they want to fix it. They don’t necessarily know how to fix it.

KING: So you trust their sense that something isn’t working?

CRUMLEY: You trust it to some extent, you have to be willing to look at it again. I always run into this shit because I don’t explain things. I’m difficult to edit but I can be edited.

KING: Does Martha read the works in progress?

CRUMLEY: She can spell, I can’t spell.

KING: Well, they say Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell and Hemingway could spell a little better.

CRUMLEY: That’s what Hemingway said! Martha is a good writer and a poet and I trust her judgment. Like I was saying earlier about the Texas book, Martha was the one who talked me out of killing Milo. For some reason it was going to be the Milo book when he died and it wasn’t like, ‘oh honey, here’s a beer, could you think of not killing Milo,’ it was more, ‘maybe you don’t have to decide right now.’ I heard this story about Philip Roth years ago in graduate school who would take whatever he’d written that day, and read it to his wife, and then read it to his mistress. This is not what we do! Martha reads my stuff. Anyone who’s got the guts to marry me, at my age, my fifth time, at her age… She’s also a smartass.

KING: Well, keep those characters alive for a while yet. Your readers love them and want them to continue about their business. Don’t kill them off for a while.

CRUMLEY: Well, in the screenplay for The Last Good Kiss, the dog does not die. The last shot is the poet going out the door, he steps over the dog’s foot, and Fireball has hold of Trahearne’s pants as he’s trying to get away.

KING: Can you say something about how you are finding Missoula now? You have lived here for over thirty years and have seen it grow and change.

CRUMLEY: Well, this is my home. It’s doubled in size since I moved here. You walk past the pawn shops and see what seems like acres of drills and saws, the stuff that shit is made out of, and it’s all in the pawn shops because there’s no basic industry which brings everything together. There’s mining and timber, the motherfuckers would cut down every goddamn tree and blow up every hill. I mean, a football field of rock run through acid will turn up enough gold for a wedding ring. If they’re prepared to do that, there’s something very wrong. This isn’t cattle country, even though I like the way the cattle tastes out here better than back in cattle country. They grow more cows in Georgia than they do in the seven western states, they grow more trees in Georgia than they harvest in the seven western states. The scenery is lovely here and the people are great. We played Vermont or New Hampshire in the playoffs last year and some woman said, the scenery is spectacular and the people are ridiculously polite. In that way it’s kind of a southern town. It’s a very good town to live in, and there are so many writers here. It’s not just the people I know, my personal friends, it’s like there’s another whole body of writers here that nobody knows, but who work here.

KING: What are you reading at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I’m 66 next month and what has happened this last year is that I can no longer read without my glasses on. This has been a terrible discovery. It’s really bitten into my reading. What used to take me three days now takes me three weeks, so I don’t read like I used to. I mostly read what people tell me they like, and I read a lot of history, mostly because I know people are always lyin’ about the history.

* * * * *

Works Cited

In Richard Hugo, Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1991); “The Right Madness on Skye”; “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”

In Richard Hugo, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography ed. Ripley S. Hugo, Lois Welch and James Welch  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1986) Hugo says, “Also got a mystery novel out of it (going to Skye) because I wrote the first drafts of the mystery novel there.” (258)

A transcript of Noel King’s 1996 interview with James Crumley is at Day Labor, the official blog of Crime Factory magazine.

© 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

James Crumley in conversation (exclusive audio)

Here are three never-before-heard audio clips from Noel King’s 2005 interview with crime writer James Crumley in which he discusses his relationship to editors, the Hollywood jungle, and his respect for writer George Pelecanos.

The full interview transcript will appear here tomorrow, and is also available in Issue #1 of Contrappasso Magazine in paperback or ebook. Enjoy.

from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.

MEETING JAMES CRUMLEY by NOEL KING

I

In late May 1996 I drove up out of Wyoming, through the top left hand corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the icy beauty of the Grand Tetons, into Montana, the place they call “the last good place.” After a drizzly day driving interstate 90 I arrived early one evening in Missoula, hometown of James Crumley, self-described “bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” and a writer whose most recent novel, The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) broke a ten year silence, sold forty thousand in hardback and won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Missoula is so full of writers that French television makes documentaries about it. No-one knows why writers come to Montana in general and Missoula in particular, least of all the writers. Crumley suggested they could be attracted to the primeval mud deposited beneath the town. Aside from Crumley, Bill Kittredge and native American writer James Welch lived there, James Lee Burke had recently settled there, staying part of each year Richard Ford had lived there until a few years earlier, David Lynch was raised there, and the wonderful poet Richard Hugo lived there until his death in 1982.

A little north of Missoula are stunning wilderness areas: Glacier National Park beckons and Flathead Lake will keep you looking admiringly for quite a while. Native American sites are nearby, Flathead Indian Reservation and Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and a half-day drive in any direction on the smaller roads will take you through mountains, past meadows, clear rivers and streams, through the small towns and a landscape of beautiful emptiness captured with elegiac affection in Hugo’s poems and Crumley’s novels.

Although I had been drawn to Missoula by Crumley’s writing, on a kind of literary skip-trace, I wasn’t expecting to meet him. I figured he’d be in Hollywood doing screenplays; his novels had been gift enough and the epigraph for one of them, The Last Good Kiss (1978) guided me to Hugo’s poetry (“You might come here Sunday on a whim/Say your life broke down/The last good kiss you had was years ago”) so I owed him that as well.

Later that first evening, sitting in The Depot, a bar-restaurant at the bottom end of the town, near the old railway, I was finishing a nice meal and drinking nice wine, musing that the statuesque clean-scrubbed beauty of the barmaids and waitresses was another reason to call Montana the “last good place,” when a happy, noisy group of six or seven people settled at the table next to mine, one of those high off the ground tables with stool-chairs. They’d come from the restaurant proper and were continuing to smoke, drink and chat. One member of their party had his back to me, a large, powerful torso gentrified into a blue-striped Brooks Brothers shirt. Even though one never means to eavesdrop, conversation carries in those contexts, and I kept hearing the phrase “dancing bear” moving in and out of the conversation. After a while I called over the tall beauty who’d been looking after my food and drink needs and told her I’d heard that phrase, that it was the title of a book by a guy called James Crumley who lived in Missoula, was he one of the people at the table? “Sure, that’s him there,” pointing at the Brooks Brothers shirt.

Immediate problem. How big a dag do you want to make of yourself? Answer, who cares? You’re a long way from home. So I waited until the table had thinned to just the blocky, bearded Crumley and another bearded offsider. The waitress paved the way for me to their table and next thing I’m drinking and chatting with the man whose writing caused me to be in a bar in Missoula in the first place. After talking for half an hour we arranged to meet late afternoon the next day to go to a bar and then do an interview at his place in Whitaker Drive in the hills above Missoula before I headed off to other parts of Montana.

Crumley’s account of his decade’s literary silence was simple: “Shit, man, it just wasn’t happening.” What was happening was a collection of short fictional pieces, novel fragments and journalism (The Muddy Fork) and a series of unproduced screenplays of some of his own novels (The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear) and other adaptations (Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Judge Dredd). Writing unproduced screenplays can be a lucrative business but it can also be dispiriting: the work is not out there in public circulation.

Even before he went silent for that ten year period, Crumley had not been a prolific writer. His reputation as the finest American crime writer since Chandler was based on three books written across an eight year period: The Wrong Case (1975), The Last Good Kiss (1978) and Dancing Bear (1983). Rock and roll magazines and sophisto rags like The Village Voice had always liked Crumley’s writing but his cult reputation was given a literary imprimatur when Harper’s magazine announced, “What Raymond Chandler did for the Los Angeles of the thirties, James Crumley does for the roadside West of today.” The entry on Crumley in The Encyclopaedia of Crime and Mystery Writers gives a lively sense of his fictional world. “What makes his books live in the reader’s mind and blood is the accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddley disorder and despair. What one remembers about them is the graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, the coke-snorting and alcohol guzzling, the endless drives through mountain snowscapes and long pit stops at seedy back woods bars, the sympathetic outcasts—psycho Viet vets, Indians, gentle hippies, rumdrums, and love-seekers. He can move us to accept the dregs of the race as our brothers and sisters, to feel the rape of the earth; in short he can write scenes that seem never to have been written before.” The same entry sees the prevailing mood of the books as “wacked out post-Vietnam empathy with all sorts of dopers, dropouts, losers and loonies.”

The Vietnam reference is important. Crumley said that his fiction is as close to the writing of Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) as it is to any models of detective fiction, and his first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969) was one of the earliest of the “Vietnam” fictions (its reference was the Korean war) that would become such a significant sub-genre in post-1960s American novel and film. References to Vietnam continue across Crumley’s later novels and he told The Armchair Detective that Vietnam was the lie that ruined America. “Most all of my adult male friends were Vietnam vets. About everybody who went to that war came back changed. I don’t think anything has happened in this country since the war that’s not somehow related to it.”

Cadence sold well for a first novel, received good reviews and was bought by Hollywood, temporarily and unexpectedly moving Crumley into a very un-first-novelist tax bracket. There was a six year wait between first and second novel, time for two marriages and divorces and time for a genre shift to detective fiction. The next book came after Crumley’s first stint in Missoula and after meeting Richard Hugo. “Dick was integral to my crime-writing life because he turned me on to Chandler. He couldn’t believe I’d never read any.” They were chatting one day and Hugo expressed his admiration for Chandler’s writing, prompting Crumley to read some on a trip to Mexico. What attracted him to Chandler’s writing was “mostly the fact that it was really wonderful, fun writing; the general sense of fun, the sentences were fun, and that appealed to me. As far as crime writers go, I guess I was inspired by Nicolas Freeling and Raymond Chandler; they’re the two disparate ends of my scale.”

Crumley began writing his first detective novel, The Wrong Case, against the genre only to find himself captivated by it. It remained his favourite novel and his fondness for the book was a fondness for its central character, the hugely engaging figure of Milton Chester Milodragovitch III, a 39 year old veteran of Korea, former police officer in the small Montana town of Meriwether, now working as a private eye. Milo, as he is known, comes from a wealthy Meriwether family but owing to his mother’s perverse will he can’t get at his inheritance money until he turns 52. Given how much drinking and drugging Milo engages in, it’s line-ball whether he’ll make it to inheritance day. Milo’s weary gloom is further explained by the fact that he is the son of two suicides. His father was a womanising dipsomaniac who died in a shooting “accident” while his mother hanged herself in a “fancy alcoholic retreat in Arizona.” Coming from that gene pool, nearing middle-age, being lied to and deceived by most of the people with whom he comes into contact, it’s no wonder that Milo muses much on the fragility of humankind, meeting the world with a beneficent sadness occasionally alleviated by falling in love with the wrong woman. A reader soon understands why Milo would find “even the simplest life was too complex.”

By the time of Dancing Bear Milo is older and a bit sadder, 47, working night shifts for Haliburton Security and keeping the world at bay by doing lots of cocaine and drinking lots of peppermint schnapps. In 1985 Newsweek ran a feature story on the then-and-still-booming world of crime and mystery writing, singling the character of Milo out for particular praise: “He seems to have wandered into the thriller world from a Jack Kerouac pipe dream.” Accolades also came from distinguished peers such as Elmore Leonard. When he reviewed Dancing Bear Leonard had been clean and sober for about six years, and he marvelled at Milo’s capacity for self-destruction. “Milo hits enough lines of cocaine before the last page to tear his nose off. Drinks enough alcohol to explode a healthy liver. But there’s enough energy in Crumley’s writing to keep the reader rooting for Milton Chester Milodragovitch III all the way. There is the hope his reward will be, at the least, detoxification. So he can come back again, soon.”

Dancing Bear earned a different sort of praise by being issued as one of the first package of Vintage Contemporaries (organised by Gary Fisketjon) which saw Crumley placed alongside Raymond Carver (Cathedral) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Vintage followed up by bringing out a uniform edition of all Crumley’s novels.

Dancing Bear opens with a comic sequence in which a hung-over postman wakes a hung-over Milo and tries to get him to sign for a letter. It is early winter and the postie is wearing ill-fitting shorts and a short-sleeved shirt because his wife has hurled out all of his clothes after an argument. An absurd wrestling match starts and ends when Milo’s neighbour (and occasional bonk) turns a hose on the combatants. Cold, wet, they go inside to share a restorative drink. The letter is from a rich elderly woman who was once the lover of Milo’s father. In it she asks Milo to indulge an old friend by finding out all he can about a couple she has watched meet in the woods near her mansion. Of course, in detective fiction such requests are never what they seem and before long Milo is caught up in a complicated narrative involving drug smuggling and toxic waste despoliation of the north-west countryside, as he travels across the wintry landscapes of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Milo, Montana and winter form a funny triad. Milo is always dreaming of leaving Meriwether and Montana, a dream that crowds in on him every winter. He dreams of going south, maybe to Mexico, searching for “sunshine and simplicity.” But at the end of Dancing Bear, he only gets as far as California before turning back home, back “into the heart of one of the worst Montana winters in years.”

Crumley had no desire to leave Montana, having spent thirty years in Missoula since coming there to teach in the mid-1960s after getting an MA from the distinguished Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the years he made occasional sorties to LA for film work and El Paso for short-term teaching stints but most of the time was spent in Missoula, writing. Five times married, with five children and five grandchildren and alimony payments that no doubt helped to concentrate the mind wonderfully, Crumley said that he thought he was meant to live in Montana, that he needed empty spaces in his life.

His wife, Martha Elizabeth, is beautiful and a poet whom he said saved him from some Milo-like tendencies towards self-destruction. Martha was off visiting her mother in Richmond, Virginia as we chatted in his lounge-room in the house in Whitaker Drive in the hills south of Missoula, over a couple of six-packs of Labatt’s Blue. At least four cats prowled around the room, fretting for the absent Martha as the TV ran constantly on a sports channel and as background music was provided by the latest tapes of Los Lobos and Steve Earle. The tapes had been given to Crumley by John Williams who had been through town to do a piece on James Lee Burke. Williams has a vivid chapter on Crumley in Into the Badlands (1991), his book on American crime writers, in which he chases him through a series of bars in and around Missoula, winding up wasted and doing a lot of damage to a rental car. As Steve Earle sang, Crumley spoke of the attraction Missoula held for him.

Crumley was 5’ 10” and you could still see the footballer and oil-field worker in the strong body. You could also see the consequences of a lifetime’s attachment to alcohol, for Crumley is what the French call, politely, a “grand buveur.” He’d already told me that Missoula used to be a great bar town (“you used to be able to walk into a bar on Railroad Street and go out back doors, all the way down to the river without getting onto a sidestreet”) and he was straightforward about the relation between drinking and writing: “I’ve always been a hard drinker. My friends are all writers and writers seem to drink hard. The only writers I know who don’t drink destructively come out of a background where it was OK to be an intellectual.”

Crumley didn’t come from such a background and one could sense an uneasiness, still felt at age 57, at being a working-class Texan kid who somehow sneaked into the world of letters. Born in 1939 in Three Rivers, Texas, of Scotch-Irish descent, his father was an oilfield supervisor and Crumley also rough-necked for many years. At the end of the 1950s, after a short stint in the navy on a destroyer in the Atlantic, he shifted to do three years in the army, much of it in the Philippines. Several years of mixing study, football and rough-necking saw him receive a BA in History from Texas A & I. He’d planned to do a PhD in Soviet Studies at the University of Washington but was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in 1964 (it was the time that Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren taught there), supporting himself by tending bar and working as a janitor, getting his MA in 1966.

Crumley’s other series character, C. W. Sughrue (pronounced “‘sugh’ as in ‘sugar,’ and ‘rue’ as in ‘rue the goddamned day’”), extracted from a long-unfinished Texas novel, comes from a social locale quite different from Milo’s and shares some of the author’s bio-data. Sughrue appeared in 1978 in The Last Good Kiss, the book that started all the buzz about Crumley being the best thing since Chandler, and he reappeared fifteen years later in The Mexican Tree Duck. Sughrue is Texan, working-class, ex-Vietnam and this was my alibi for asking Crumley if he thought of himself as a displaced Texan. “Well, I was always displaced. I was born in Texas but we went to New Mexico during WW2. We didn’t move back to Texas until I was in the second grade. The part of Texas where I lived is the last place where there’s a great clash between the white minority and the Mexican American majority, where people are still race conscious in a really silly way. It’s an unhappy kind of place, it’s hot and humid, and the wind blows nine months out of the year. It was never a place that I was ever going back to once I left, although circumstances have forced me back a couple of times. I don’t think of myself as a Texan, I’ve discovered that I’m not actually a Southerner, I just thought I was a Southerner.”

Although Crumley’s reputation in the crime genre is somewhere between the cult and the revered senior practitioner, his writing puzzled critics by sitting between genre writing and more literary writing and by mixing laughter and violence in a way the Coen brothers would admire. “I think I confuse people. I’m not writing detective novels and I’m not writing literary novels, and nobody knows what to do with them. That’s a problem I don’t I have at all in foreign markets. In Germany and Italy I’m in a crime series, in England I’m in Picador, a perfectly legitimate literary press. Now the Italians are bringing my books out in hardback after I had been out in cheap paperbacks; the Greeks have just discovered me. The French have always been very good to me, they put me up in nice places, feed me well, put me on TV with Randy Newman.”

The books that had been important to him over the years make for a very literary list. “Dick Yates’s Revolutionary Road was a big book for me. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a really big book in my life, then Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Under the Volcano, and the Russians. Camus, but the philosophy, not so much the novels. In the month I started One to Count Cadence for the last time, I read Anna Karenina, War and PeaceThe Rebel, and The Brothers Karamazov. I finished the book and I remember jumping up and down in the snow in the middle of the night in my shorts in Iowa City, shouting out ‘Hooray for Karamazov, you motherfuckers!’”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the genre in which he earned his fame, but unsurprisingly given that list of his reading interests, Crumley’s prose occasionally recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald and often is very close to the sentiments conveyed in the poetry of his friend, Richard Hugo. Each explores the elegiac moment and constructs classic scenes of regret. When Nick Carraway breaks up with Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby by saying he’s too old to lie to himself and call it honour, it comes close to all of Milo’s hapless encounters with women. Whereas Nick says, “Angry and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away,” Milo says, at the end of The Wrong Case, “As I stood there the blunt shadows of the western ridge advanced darkly to the verge of the creek. I sat down, heard the sound of the car driving away, I drank my beer, and forgave her.”

Crumley’s writing of regret also targets the loss of possibilities of another kind, concerning landscape. Part of the inspiration for Dancing Bear came from Michael Brown’s Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1981) and an eco-politics underlies all Crumley’s evocations of the rivers, lakes, mountains and meadows of the Pacific Northwest. In Dancing Bear Milo says, “On a bright sunny day I could have seen Mount Rainier looming like a misshapen moon on the horizon, and even through the fog and rain I thought I could feel its rocky weight.”

When asked what bits of his writing he liked best, Crumley said he liked the part in The Last Good Kiss “when Sughrue recalls the time his father ties him to the back of the motorbike and takes him up to see the snow at Estes peak—I kind of like that.” Who wouldn’t? It’s one of Crumley’s finest evocations of landscape and memory: “On the way home, tied once more to his back with baking twine, I slept, my cold skin like fire, and dreamed of blizzards and frozen lakes, a landscape sheathed in ice, but I was warm somehow, wrapped in the furs of bears and beaver and lynx, dreaming of ice as the motorbike split the night.”

That late 60s, early 70s period of American history involving the transition from Johnson to Nixon, the consequences of the Vietnam War and Watergate, marked Crumley the person as it does the characters in his fiction. We stumbled onto the topic of Nixon when he told me he was working on a new book. It was a Milo book in which Milo has gone to live in Austin but I mistook it for the long-promised Texas novel, then apologised for raising that topic, saying he must get sick of people asking him whether he’s finished that book. “Well, I’m the one that didn’t finish the son-of-a-bitch. I haven’t forgotten about it and I’ve got a frame for it. It begins on the day of Nixon’s resignation.” Crumley chuckled as he recalled how he encountered that historic event. “I was living on Vashon Island at the time, riding bikes with a friend of mine who teaches up there. We walked into a store to have a beer and there was no-one in the front of the store. It was an old hippie kind of place and I hollered out, and they said ‘come in the back here, fuckin’ Nixon’s resigning on TV.’ So we sat there, smoked dope and drank beer while the son-of-a-bitch went to the grave.” I asked whether this opinion had mellowed over the years, taking account of the mini-redemption Nixon achieved in retirement, his part in the recognition of China and so on. Smoke was exhaled and a longish pause allowed some more of a Steve Earle tape to float around the room and one of the four cats to stroll past before an unforgiving reply came forth. “Nixon was the whore-dog of American politics. He had no honour, no decency. I didn’t find anything even vaguely amusing about Nixon. An old friend of mine, Mike Koepf, and I stayed on the phone all through the televised burial of Nixon. We both had FBI files, and I was the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War faculty adviser at Colorado State, and I was a SDS affiliate.”

In 1985 Crumley had said that he hoped one day to prove that his two series characters, Sughrue and Milo, were distinct fictional entities by “writing a novel using both voices. They like each other; they know each other.” At the end of The Mexican Tree Duck Sughrue describes the day that his “old partner” comes into his bar, Slumgullions, spruced up and ready to go claim his inheritance. Only trouble is he’s a year early. Bordersnakes (1996) is the book Crumley alluded to more than a decade earlier. The book begins with the two old buddies each having something to prove and to find. A lawyer has absconded with Milo’s inheritance money and Sughrue has narrowly escaped being killed in a bar-room brawl that was actually a paid hit. The book is narrated turn-about by both Milo and Sughrue as they go travelling far from Montana.

Since he had waited twenty years to let loose his two series characters in the one book, I asked him what Milo and Sughrue afforded him as a writer. “The older character, Milo, gives me a character with a real sense of moral ethics and an approach to the world which involves kindness rather than violence, although he’s willing to be violent when it’s necessary, I guess. And the Sughrue character is just reckless and crazy and he’s not afraid of anything. That’s one of the things that starts this new book off. Sughrue is afraid now. Something has happened and he’s learned fear. So he and Milo go off on a double-edged jaunt, looking for Milo’s money and looking for Sughrue’s revenge and everything comes up fairly well for everybody, except for the bad guys; it’s almost all set in west Texas and California. Milo and Sughrue go all over the country, their friendship is put to the test and is not found wanting.” He smiled as he added, “I don‘t think there’s any scenes in Montana at all. Everybody writes about Montana now.”

I was heading out of Missoula the next morning to drive around other parts of Montana, so I asked Crumley what parts of the country he had written about so memorably he liked to visit.
“Chico Hot Springs is a place I’ve always liked. We spend a week there in the summer with the kids and another week during the year when we can get away. We try to float the Smith River every year. It’s a four day float over into the Missouri River, White Shell Fish Plains. I still like to drive up to Glacier, go through the park, and I still like Yellowstone. Even with the tourists there, it’s always impressive.” Suddenly the voice brightened into the tone used earlier when giving nostalgic information on what a great bar town Missoula used to be. “There’s tons of little towns in Montana you can stop at, stop and have a beer. You buy the first one, they buy the next one.” I quoted from the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss, next thing, you’re “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” He smiled and lifted his Labatt, “That’s for sure.”

II

In late September 2005, during the Montana Festival for the Book which was held in Missoula, I was able to see Jim Crumley again, for what would be the last time. I was waiting outside The Depot when he was driven up by a friend (Jim was recovering from some health problems) and it was terrific to see that smiling bulk again, have a guy-hug and head on into the bar for drink, food and conversation. That continued over the next couple of days and evenings, and it was good to meet some of Jim and Martha’s close friends, and also good to meet Martha (see under ‘beautiful’ above) and buy a couple of her poetry books from a Missoula independent bookseller. Jim, Martha and some of those friends were gathered around an outside table when the interview printed below took place.

III

This introduction must end with a sad coda. In September 2008 I was again driving around the Pacific Northwest heading down from Oregon to California, loving how reindeer and elk would dart across roads and highways (and walk all over Ashland during its theatre season) when I turned on my car radio to hear Jim Crumley talking. It was a younger-voiced Jim Crumley than I had encountered in 1996 and 2005, and the interview ended with Jim telling a story about a crime story he had written when he was about eight years old, called “The Brown Case.” As he recalled it contained a sentence that referred to ‘the Brown case’ and the reply came, “The Brown case? What Brown case?” and he felt that offered a neat summary of his crime-writing life to that point. By then the penny had dropped, that I was hearing an archival interview, and the female announcer’s voice duly said that listeners had been hearing an interview with Jim Crumley. That terrible present-past tense usage confirmed the dreadful thought as fact. Jim Crumley was dead at age 68, too young: that blocky strong body, the talent for writing and for conversation, all that ‘other’ reading he did, mainly history but also poetry and also blurbing friends’ books  (and strangers’ if he liked the book). Of course it would hit Martha hardest and his family and close friends but it is testimony to the kind of person Jim Crumley was that hearing this sad information prompted me, an Australian who had met him for about one week across two visits a decade apart (plus a few telephone conversations), to pull over to the edge of the highway and shed some tears.

[And here’s the Interview: Always Lookin’ For A Book, Lookin’ For A Title]

 © 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
A different version of this piece appeared as
‘Bar and Grill: A profile of James Crumley’ in HQ Magazine July / August 1997

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING teaches film studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. His other interviews with writers include Martin Cruz Smith, William McIlvanney, Scott Phillips, Craig Holden, Barry Gifford and his interviews with publishers include Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, London (now part of Profile Books), Francois von Hurter of Bitter Lemon Press, London, and Dennis McMillan, Tucson, Arizona.

from issue #1: Poetry by Elias Greig

Coming Home Last Night

Walking back from your parents’ house
I stopped to watch you walk,
Watching your plumed breath curl
And the easy stroke of your legs.
I wondered how many suburbs
Those legs of yours had covered
Before they covered mine,
And why, so suddenly, I loved you
For your quiet defiance
Of gravity.

All the Torn and Tangled Days

And all the torn and tangled days since then are lying,
Piled on the floors of dirty rooms and cluttered kitchens,
And woven in and out of all the places
We’d so often try to visit together.
And in the budding days, the newness,
Ageless from the empty buildings of our desires,
Would walk so rare and real beside us,
On the street corners and up and down the corridors
Of our interminable happiness.

Fettered only by our loving limits,
Caught only by our careful hearts,
We seized the autumn afternoons
And breathed life into the leaves.
And always our pedestrian destiny
Would await us on street corners,
Amongst the intersections
And the poorly-scripted trees,
Over and under the terrace houses;
And in the winding of the lanes.

But now the houses are cluttered.
Amongst all the possessions,
All the artefacts of spent affection,
And trophies of despair;
All the fixtures of forgotten longings,
And the easy ornaments of cheap regret,
How can we find the space to share these things?
The solitude of company, and all the endless
Emptiness of the unshared world.

My Winter Coat

I brushed off my winter coat this morning
In the grey light, with the rain pressing
So hard on the curtained window.
And all the sounds of the suburb waking
Came sliding in under the sills,
Under the old aluminium,
Corroded to powder blue.

The thousand compelling little melodramas
Of all the unshared world
Came welling up under my window sill,
Dripped lazily down my bedroom wall
And wet my naked feet
As I brushed off my winter coat.

A Hand Through the Window

The suburb strokes my sleeping face—
Shadows by the underpass,
Dog track, telegraph and posted bills,
Bins all heaped with yesterday’s news;
Bums by the tram line coughing,
Smoking patchwork cigarettes.
The cars go jack-hammering overhead.

Behind the blinds of a crouching room
Faced up to catch the light I wonder
At the strange way my mind takes,
Why it feels a promise in the later hours.
Each streetlight like a finger beckons,
Draws me out on the night’s cool arm,
Calls me out into the air,
Takes care to rub my sleeping face
In the gutters of some little street,
To creep my eyes behind the shutters
Of undressing girls and women, see them
Blush-pink or sallow with unconscious grace
Or very conscious clumsiness.

And I follow, somnambulant, the unwinding town,
My suburb stretched bare, unshuttered,
Blushing in the moon’s desirous light,
See the fights of smaller men in public houses,
Violence and the pleading eyes of lonely women.
I will weave a new mythology
Patterned on the streets’ square deltas,
Sew it with the thread that runs before
Like a kite string from my chest,
Cut it with the scissor-motions of the clock,
The hands that beat the tune of life’s decline.

Fig Tree

Walking home tonight past the fig tree,
By the iron fence and sandstone wall,
I was lifted suddenly on to tip-toe
And I felt the sky between the lustrous leaves,
Felt its cool and countless stars,
And felt, with perfect clarity,
The pure, pure darkness between,
The stretching, fathomless sky.
As if some giant thumb had ceased to press,
I walked taller, knowing I would not hit my head.
I floated, weightless in the cold evening
Stretching candidly to infinity
Before my wondering eyes.

And I rose, by degrees, above the street,
The concrete, asphalt, and stop signs,
Saw the little streets as lines of light,
The fraught, succulent intersections of the living,
So many lives and lights and misplaced things,
The whirling madness of the city made small,
Its harmony, collusions and collisions
All reduced to golden corollaries.
Just as if I’d burst my body’s bounds,
As if all the bonds of every cell
From molecule to atom had let go,
I moved outside the world,
Saw it spin beneath my feet.

Beating by my secret heart there lives a thing,
A stupid, senseless, golden chord
That thrums with warm vitality,
Hums like a fat taught string,
A chord of senseless beauty
Backs the beatings of my heart,
And I cease to touch the ground,
My heels are winged and streaking
To futurity with unerring aim.

 © 2012 Elias Greig

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *

ABOUT THE POET

When he’s not fumbling for consonance or checking his lines don’t reach the edge of the page, ELIAS GREIG is a tutor and a PhD student working in the English department at the University of Sydney. Research interests include Wordsworth’s political poetics, Robert Burns’s democratic ironies, and William Hazlitt’s critical style. His poems have featured in Hermes, but nowhere else, and he is glad they are part of the launch of something new. If pressed, he prefers the still, small voice of literary criticism to the sounding tones of poetry, but happily combined the two as an editor of Hermes in 2010.

from issue #1: ‘Darkness Come Down’ by Floyd Salas

DARKNESS COME DOWN by FLOYD SALAS

HIS NAME WAS PANCHO and he messed with me the first day I was put up in C Tank in the county jail. A white-skinned Mexican dude in his thirties probably who had a bunch of knife scars on his pale, pink body. I checked them out when he took off his shirt for some reason, maybe to take a shower though I don’t recall him ever getting into the shower when I was in C Tank with him that couple of months or so.

In fact I was the only guy of about twenty guys and more who took a shower every day, every morning in fact. I was eighteen and didn’t even shave and weighed about one-fifteen with my clothes on. Five-five with a wiry body, small-shouldered bone structure but with a big chest and thick shoulder muscles, not shaped like a body builder but full-formed, a fly-weight novice amateur fighter, had a handful of fights when I was seventeen. Dark brown wavy hair, not curly, wavy, with big curls that waved back from my temples, medium complexion, big hazel green eyes, a speck of yellow in the iris softening the green. A prisoner said, “Good body,” when I had to take a shower in B, the incoming tank on the first floor of the jail, the thirteenth floor of the county courthouse, down below the C and D tank, which were on the fourteenth floor. That was when I first got to the jail to face a superior court trial for two counts of strong-arm robbery and an aggravated assault against an off-duty cop who saw me and three other guys in a street fight in East Oakland, Ninety-Eighth Ave, and chased us down ‘til we skidded to a stop and jumped out and fought him, too. And he lost the fight and covered up with his arms and bent legs, but chased us when we first drove off from the fight and ran to a cop phone on a boulevard street corner and put out a calling-all-cars alarm and pretty quick we were in jail, thinking we just had a street fight with two guys.

But they were calling it armed robbery because we took a bottle of whiskey from the guys we were in the street fight with in the first place—when the off-duty cop first saw us—and, big crime, a paper sack with men’s socks in it.

But the real reason they were over-charging us was because we beat up the cop even if he was off-duty in street clothes and we didn’t know he was a cop.

In any case, here I was, in jail with a huge bail of fifteen thousand dollars on me and a lawyer that wanted a thousand dollars to take the case and this was in 1949 when it only cost thirty-five cents to go to the show and I earned a dollar fifteen an hour as a kitchen helper at Duchess Party Foods. I was put in this jail tank on the fourteenth floor of the Alameda court house with a bunch of adult felons and didn’t know what I was doing or going to do since a trial date hadn’t even been set yet. When it was finally set, it would be four months away.

So, I was a kid in a barred tank, a big day room with a stationary iron table and two iron benches on each side of it secured to the concrete floor in the middle of a jail tank full of felons, ex-convicts and soon-to-be convicts when they got sentenced and here’s this guy Pancho in front of me talking nasty like I was nothing, insulting me, telling me to get off the mop-wet floor or something and I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I knew he was spewing bullying hate with his spittle when he talked at me—not to me, at me.

He wasn’t big. Average size man, about five-eight or so, probably in his thirties, medium build, one-fifty say, and brown hair that fell straight across his forehead sometimes and was combed to the sides from a part in the middle, old-fashioned style in a way, foreign, like he was from Mexico.

C Tank was the best tank to be in the four tanks of the county jail—I’d find that out the hard way when I got transferred out of it. C Tank faced south and got the sun most of the day. It had a view of the South Bay over the roof tops if I’d climb up the bars a few feet and peek past the barred hallway that separated the tank from the outside walls of the county courthouse.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on that first day and suddenly here’s this guy in front of me talking nasty and belligerent with his thick lips spewing out spit, saying, “Get off the floor!” or something like that and I said something back and he must have pushed me because I threw a punch at him and he reached out and blocked the punch and we struggled for a moment when this older guy named Jim Fox jumped in and got between us, stopping the fight.

Maybe he was trying to protect me because I was smaller, but I could think, I was smart and I could fight, too, and I feared no one. I could drop any guy I hit with one punch, no matter how big, and had never lost a street fight in my life and I’d had about twenty or so of them by this time.

I’d gone to nine public schools before I finally graduated because I acted like a big guy which could rile some dudes. If there was a bully in the crowd, itching to vent his anger at being alive and having to fight for survival every day, he’d decide to take his pecking order instinct out on me, the smallest guy around. I was smart, too, and had skipped a grade so looked even smaller for my age around the older kids, and acted like I belonged to any crowd.

But after a fight or two, I didn’t have to fight a lot because I always won. I had athletic talent, graceful movement and was always a leader and could hit hard for my size and could drop anybody I hit, no matter how tall, and every school I went to I got a reputation as a tough kid who didn’t mess with anybody but would fight if he had to. There were boxers in my family on both my mom and pop’s sides. It was in the blood.

Usually I was the sharpest in the crowd and knew more about the adult world because my older brothers had both taken me with them on their adventures, both intellectual and physical, and treated me like an adult while still watching over me. I kept my mouth shut and got along with the older people I met through either of them, my big brothers, and learned about the big world.

I had dropped that cop after those three big guys I was with, my friends Dexter McGee, Corky Bible and Bill Waters, couldn’t put him down. I did it by reaching up between them and dropping him with a single left hook to the chin. They then each booted him once as he covered up like a ball. I saw the only unprotected part of his body and kicked him right between the cheeks of his ass and he yelped and we then jumped into Bill’s car and sped off.

But the cop jumped in his gray Ford coupe and chased us and, as we sped down San Leandro Boulevard through a mile-long section of East Oakland that had the Frisco Bay and light industry buildings on one side and houses and fields on the other, I saw him brake, jump out of the car and run to a police phone near a gas station.

“That guy might be a cop,” I said.

But Bill said not to worry about it—he’d report his car as stolen. We’d just had a fight—no big deal—Dexter said, so we decided to go get a big bottle of Coke to mix with the whiskey at an all-night drugstore market on Nineteenth and Broadway and party.

That’s when the cops hit. Bill parked his car on the corner of Nineteenth with his back-end on Broadway, the main drag in Oakland, and Corky jumped out and went inside the store to buy the Coke. The store had two doorways, one facing Broadway and the other Nineteenth. My father’s restaurant, the El Patio, was right across the street from the Nineteenth Street side door, but it was closed this late at night, after midnight. I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat when the next thing I know I see a man through the glass window standing right outside my closed door, bent over, wearing a rumpled dark suit and hat. And he’s got a black pistol aimed at my face. He’s not a big guy but he’s not kidding. I know he’s a cop and do what he says, “Get out.” Bill and Dexter get out of the car, too, and then I’m standing on the sidewalk with Dexter and Bill and cops standing all around us—guns pointed at us.

There’s some reporters and a photographer, too. One of them, some guy I can’t see too clearly standing between two cops in the streetlight on the corner, starts bad-mouthing us, talking tough, and when he says something real wise-guy like, Dexter says something back and they trade smart remarks for a few wise-cracks. Bill and I keep our mouths shut.

I think I’m in trouble for getting in a street fight, no major thing, even if I’m going to jail. I don’t want to be there, but I’m not freaking out either. I’m glad my father’s restaurant’s closed though.

Then I’m in jail and the long nightmare starts.

*

HE THUMPS HIS BLACKJACK down on my thigh. A thick-bodied cop, thinning black hair spreading back on top his head from his wide face—pushing up against me on the bench where I’m waiting to get booked. I still think I’m in there for a street fight, no big deal, but they’ve taken my pants off for evidence from a spot of blood on them and now I remember Dexter in the back seat of the car leaning over next to me, dripping blood on me from his bloody nose. I’m in red boxer shorts and bare-legged and feel the heavy hardness of that blackjack on my skin clear to the bone. He got me good.

Then he does it again, in the same spot. I wince, whether I want to show that it hurts or not.

I wait for another shot and tighten my leg, but just then a gray-haired guy in civilian clothes, dark slacks and sport shirt, probably an inspector, walks in from the next room and looks at me when he walks by with what seems to be an amused smile or smirk and the balding cop leans back away from me and against the wall, playing it safe so he won’t get in trouble for brutalizing a prisoner, I guess. The booking room is the bottom floor of the city hall, which is twelve stories high, with a drive-in right next to it in the building where they drop the poor suckers off who are going upstairs to the top floor of the building, the jail, and that includes me.

I used to carry a hair brush to keep my scalp and hair healthy. Baldness ran in the family on my father’s side, but not on my Mom’s side and I was a scholar and had worked in the library as a page for a buck an hour on my first job after high-school and studied hair among other subjects like dreams and Freud and novelists like Richard Wright and so carried a brush because brushing your hair every day was healthy, I’d read. I did it so I’d never get bald when I got older.

But when the cops had me strip naked, one cop picked up my brush and with a bright look in his eye told me to turn around. I said no and wouldn’t turn or obey him because I knew he was going to poke me in the ass with it.

*

THAT WAS THE BEGINNING of jail time. First they put me in a separate, single row of cells that faced an enclosed yard in the middle of the main jail floor which was the twelfth floor of the city hall. The elevator stopped there.

I sang out in the middle of the day, pretty pop songs a young man just entering manhood with thoughts of mating would sing, like Louie Armstrong’s

I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill
where I found you.
The moon stood still
and lingered until
my dreams came true.

Once, I was taken into a room with two detectives. The big fat detective in a dirty, rumpled suit, gray with age, asked me what happened, and I told him about the guys shouting at us and us getting out to fight them and picking up the bottle of whiskey and the bag with the socks and driving off and getting chased by this guy and then driving off, never mentioning that I dropped that cop with a left hook to the chin, underneath his guard and in-between the bodies of Dexter and Bill and Corky while they were throwing punches from all sides at him and couldn’t bring him down.

Then the cop says, “You sign this and we’ll charge you with petty theft and let it go at that.”

I signed and felt pretty good. Both cops that grilled me were in their forties, at least, and sloppy in their dress, and the one fat cop, who grilled me and got me to sign right off—a dumb kid who didn’t even know that I could ask for a lawyer, me just thinking it was a small charge, petty theft thing, like the cop said, no big deal—talked real civil, without education, but high-school English level, street level language, fat cop sitting opposite of me in the cubby-hole of a tiny room, and wrote down my story and got me to sign it at the end of the long yellow sheet.

I was in the cell when I was called out into the hall in the middle of the second day or so to face the two cops and all three of us, me and Dexter and Bill, were handed felony warrants for two strong-arm robberies and one aggravated assault. Their hypocrisy and deceitful behavior in over-charging us in every way, left me standing there in front of the two cops, knowing there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing. Strong-arm robbery? Assault? He chased us. At least they didn’t charge us with attacking a cop, but that was small consolation.

Then I was taken out of the line of cells that faced the small yard down below and put up on the top tier of that cell block, the back cells, the felony cells, five levels up, facing the gray blank wall of the opposite side of the cell block at the top of the city hall. This tier had the only windows in the cell block that opened out and let the cold air in. The guys on the bottom level sweated with heat and were always crying out for us to open the windows while the guys on the top tier like me wanted the windows closed because they let in cold air that the heat from the main floor down below didn’t reach.

A couple of things happened in the twelve days of darkness I spent there that stuck with me. I found a way to keep my cell door unlocked by sticking a magazine in the doorway when the trusty in the stairwell pulled the lever that closed off the cells in the row, blocking it from closing. At night, they’d close those cell doors but in the day time they were often open and the prisoners could move up and down the tier of their cell block and go into other prisoners’ cells. You could move around at least and even sneak down to the bottom tier level sometimes. It was there where some big black dude did some tough talking and I said, “You want to spar?” and charged at him and drove him back in his cell to the back wall, throwing just body shots to keep it from being a fight, but showing what could happen if he wanted to really tussle. He backed away.

Then there was Jesse James. That was his real name. A nice black guy, average size, one-fifty maybe, who was in on auto theft and had a cell next to mine. One night the wind’s whistling in the windows in that row of top tiers and I hunker down in my blanket and try to stay warm, but start sniffling from the cold every once in a while, in the dark. The lights are out, it’s sleep time, when I sniffle again and hear from the next cell, Jesse James’ voice: “You okay, Floyd?” as if he thought I was crying. It would come to that.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Jesse. Just a little cold. Thanks,” I answered.

*

BUT THE DARKNESS CAME DOWN. Twelve days in that dark hole and finally there’s a preliminary trial, but long before that, days before that, there’s the life in the felony cells, the floors of iron with the caged walkways. At night, a woman would sing from the women’s dorm, which must have been on the other side of the wall of the felony cells. Her voice would come down into the tank from the darkness of the night outside those windows. A sweet pretty voice that suited her name, Pearl.

My preliminary trial was coming up and the future was unknown and filled with threat and my fear. I was in Hell on Earth and had to survive it, and so did she and so did all of us. And yet she sang and there was something about the rich tones of her voice, like chocolate or blackberry wine, that was sweetness itself. It touched my spirit and that of those around me.

© 2012 Floyd Salas

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Floyd Salas is the critically-acclaimed author of four novels, a memoir and two volumes of poetry.  His publications include Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967), winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship; What Now My Love (1970); Lay My Body on the Line (1978), written and published on National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowships; the memoir Buffalo Nickel (1992), which earned him a California Arts Council Literary Fellowship; State of Emergency (1996), awarded the 1997 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award, and his poetry books, Color of My Living Heart (1996) and Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats (2006).  

He was a staff writer for the NBC drama, Kingpin, released in February, 2003 and a 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley.  He has recently completed a novel about 1940s Oakland entitled Seventh Street Jump. He is also working on Maverick:  Prayers of Heresy, a volume of new and selected poems from the last fifty years.

He is editor of Stories and Poems from Close to Home (1986) and other anthologies of San Francisco Bay Area writing, and the author of numerous essays and reviews about writing and the creative life.  Tattoo the Wicked Cross and Buffalo Nickel are featured in Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature (HarperCollins 1994).   His other awards and honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fiction Scholarship, an NEA creative writing fellowship, and two outstanding teaching awards from the University of California, Berkeley.  His fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts as well as letters and biographical information are archived in the Floyd Salas collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.  His novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, earned a place on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Western 100 List of Best 20th Century Fiction.  He has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, and Foothill College, as well as at numerous writing conferences and at San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and other correctional institutions.  He is a founder and president of the multicultural writing group PEN Oakland, and a former boxing coach for University of California, Berkeley.

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