Several years ago, while penning The Right Madness, his latest exploration of (very) bad behavior, Montana's James Crumley suffered an unidentified ailment that caused his lungs and the lining of his heart to fill with fluid. After an ER nurse told the author, who's crustier than a truckload of French bread, that he'd have to be put on a ventilator, he asked, "What if I don't want to be on a ventilator?" "She looked at her watch," he recalls, "and said, 'Two or three hours, you'll be in a coma. Two or three days, you'll be dead.' And I said, 'Oh, what the hell.'"
Acquiescing turned out to be a good call. Crumley was hospitalized for 28 days, and upon his release, it took what seemed like ages to recover, both physically and creatively. "I lost all my compound nouns -- wagon wheel, machine gun, motorboat. They disappeared from my language," he reports. He also found himself incapable of touch-typing, and, years later, the skill still hasn't returned. But he can hunt and peck with the best of them, and after a fallow stretch, his admirable storytelling ability came back strong. "You can't tell where I got sick when you're reading the book," he notes. "It's one of the things I worked over pretty good, to make sure there was no difference from the beginning to the end."
Maybe so, but the narrative certainly goes through some major changes. At the outset, protagonist C.W. Sughrue, the intoxicant- loving Vietnam vet turned private dick who was also at the center of Crumley's signature tome, 1978's The Last Good Kiss, has temporarily settled down; his primary indulgence is softball. But before long, Sughrue is drinking, doping and digging into a mystery that's as gory as it is surreal. One woman apparently does such a good job of hanging herself that her head pops off, dousing Sughrue in a hemoglobin geyser, while another commits suicide by languidly slicing off both hands with a band saw. Crumley will bring it all to vivid life when he reads from Madness at the Tattered Cover Cherry Creek on Thursday, May 26.
Much of the book's insanity takes place in Colorado, which Crumley knows well; he taught at CSU for three years in the early '70s before quitting over the requirement that he oversee a freshman-comp unit. Even Crumley was surprised by a confrontation near rural Punkin Center between Sughrue and homicidal twins, one of whom is in the midst of a sexual-reassignment procedure (Trinidad is name-checked). "That's always a good sign when you're in a book -- when the characters start doing things that you didn't think they were going to do," he says.
Crumley is equally unpredictable. Despite his celebrity, he has a listed phone number in his home town of Missoula, as well as this standing offer for writing students at the nearby University of Montana: "If they bring me a six-pack of beer and twenty pages, I'll read it right there in front of them." This proposition may strike fledgling scribes as intimidating, but "those kids who have the nerve to do it have benefited," Crumley maintains. "I do know some things about writing. Unfortunately, they don't work for me; they work for other people. Every time I start a book, it's the same goddamn thing."
Indeed, he's been ruminating on his next novel for months, but thus far has completed only one sentence. In the meantime, he's done some script-doctoring for an independent Western shooting in New Mexico under the direction of Tim Hunter, who helmed 1986's River's Edge. "It's got ghosts in it, and had generic Indians, which irritated the shit out of me," he says. Although he tried to punch things up, he concedes, "I haven't decided whether I'll let them keep my name on it or not."
Despite such tough talk, Crumley believes that he's mellowed in his personal life since his brush with the big sleep. As a bonus, he says, "Some of my friends aren't dead yet. And neither am I."