The North Country is the burial ground for America’s myths. So maybe it’s not surprising that there are more good writers per square mile in Montana and Idaho than anywhere else in the States. The irony is that the writers themselves are often obscured by the area’s remoteness from the rest of the country. Montana and Idaho took off in the late Sixties, when real estate was cheap, plentiful and luring the likes of Tom McGuane, Tim Cahill, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda and the late Seymor Lawrence. Frontier towns like Livingston and Boulder Creek are today about as close as you can get to a nursing home for Sixties’ veterans and survivors of the more recent Hollywood filmscript wars – complete with a beanery in nearby Bozeman, owned and operated by the actress Glenn Close. Yet the North Country has never tried to be fashionable. If Aspen is all plastic surgery and cholesterol-free restaurants, the North Country is veterinarians and iron skillets.
Over a hundred years ago, the North Country was the last stepping stone to the fulfilment of America’s manifest destiny. Vietnam turned the Great American Dream of the 19th century into the Great American Scheme, leaving Montana and Idaho to be possibly the most provocative critical presences in the American conscience, a cultural light-year away from the illiterate popworld of Beavis and Butthead and the fortysomething editors who deify Rosanne Arnold and Richard Nixon on the same page. Editors once made yearly scouting trips up to the North Country, just to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of fad and revisionism. These trips, which took place in the spring and always in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, provided the only occasion for a Manhattan features editor actually to make use of the L.L. Bean outdoor gear displayed in the fashion pages of GQ and Esquire.
These days the Vietnam War has been reduced to a Generation X rock band named Diem. Recently, I overheard a young, pepper-bellied Mexican saloon-owner by the name of Dagoberto telling a Vietnam veteran in his overpriced Aspen bar: ‘You old farts, still mucking around in that war. Hell, you guys lost the son of a bitch, and that’s the real story, fucking old news, so get the fuck out of my place, man, or we’ll see who dies.’ The Vet, a former grunt sergeant in the Central Highlands, lifted the Mexican yuppie and his martini off the stool with one right hook. ‘It wasn’t a great right hook,’ the sergeant said. ‘A little too short and a bit off-centre, but he was a small, rich Mexican and probably hadn’t been hit in the face in his life.’
Too often, however, the raw beauty and isolation of the North Country has encouraged an utter lack of neurological activity. The warrior General George Armstrong Custer, a florid diarist before Crazy Horse cut short his writing career, was perhaps the first disowned American hero to find this out, on the rolling slopes of the Little Big Horn. Ernest Hemingway abandoned Africa to scatter his fame across Idaho with a shotgun. Richard Brautigan fled Haight-Ashbury for the solitude of Montana to write Trout Fishing in America and other then classics now discarded. Few make the arduous journey to these graves, preferring the bit of pasteurised America available at Nixon’s tomb in California. This is a situation that no doubt suits the North Country dead. Montana and Idaho have always been more hideout than state.
Montanan James Crumley is a detective writer, but The Mexican Tree Duck is as much a detective novel as The Man with the Golden Arm is a heroin story. In fact, Crumley – a Nelson Algren of the North Country, you could say – has unintentionally and magnificently enlarged the Algren adage ‘never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc and never sleep with a woman who has more problems than you’:
after forty, never go anyplace you’ve never been before. Except on somebody else’s nickel. Never go out at night unless you’re wearing black. And never go anywhere in America without a gun. Everybody looks silly with camo paint slashed across their face. But so few people see you that, it’s not a huge problem. Put your money in bad dogs before good alarm systems. Technology is interesting, but nowhere nearly effective as a couple of Rottweilers.
The speaker in question is Montana private detective C.W. Sughrue, a Vietnam Vet with his finger on the pulse of Nineties America, a decade that only a ‘Republican tax expert could explain’. On the first page of The Mexican Tree Duck you meet a burping jukebox about to be run over by a freight train, a damaged Herradura tequila bottle and a dangerous pile of crystal meth. By the time you come up for air on page five, you’ll have been introduced to Dick Nixon’s political ghost, an ARVN position under the clotted Vietnamese sky, and Solomon Rainbolt, an attorney who can make a jury eat his shorts and convince them it was fettuccine al fredo. I will not say that Crumley is a bald-faced liar, but for a frequent visitor to the North Country the characters and events in The Mexican Tree Duck are so familiar that I suspect it’s actually a work of non-fiction. So if you thought Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie was the final, National-Book-Award-winning word on what happened in Vietnam, wait until you meet C.W. Sughrue and Millard Fillmore, a goose.
James Crumley’s other detective novels, The Last Good Kiss, The Wrong Case and Dancing Bear, were classic American detective tales written to pay the rent and designed to be taken on vacation. The Mexican Tree Duck – ‘the dumbest duck in the world’, Crumley calls this toothed creature, which waddles along the top of mesquite scrub in the American South-West – is a book that demands to be read. The heavily-armed Sughrue humps into an ersatz British pub in Aspen, a pub filled with assassinated bodies and the sound of the landlord’s lament:
Man, I have hated gin since the day I got to the UK. My old man sent me to Oxford. I hated every moment on that foul little island with those pasty-faced pricks. ‘Cept for the women, of course; they were fine. But I made this place look like it does now to remind me of those bad times ... Tourists are brave, not reasonable. In fact they are the bravest people in the world. They leap into giant vehicles and haul oversized trailers into places that most intelligent people wouldn’t take a D-9 Cat and at speeds most people wouldn’t attempt in sports cars. They try to sit their children on black bears with bags of marshmallows, they try to photograph the nasal passages of buffalo and moose, and they blunder their way up trails closed by grizzly bear signs, flouting their chocolate bars and menstrual pads, so they are so brave they scare the shit out of me.
It’s Crumley’s characters who embody the novel’s political sway, and they who convey political feeling so deftly, subtly and without charity. The shadow of Vietnam – not ’Nam or Indian Country or any of the other sobriquets made popular by MACV spin doctors – lingers throughout. The explosion of violent drugs and dirtydollar politics, which seem to have been the war’s most enduring discharge on the American psyche, gels like nasty road-tar as Sughrue and his Vietnam Vet fire-team leave Montana to track the missing mother of the leader of a biker gang, and end up on the short end of the North American Free Trade Agreement. ‘When Dan Rather makes more money than the President,’ Sughrue asks before reaching the drug and wetback corridor through Kilbourne’s Hole near El Paso, ‘who the fuck’s really in charge?’ There’s a clarity of cussing, a sidecar of wisdom and a lode of passion in Sughrue, too: ‘Young men find spring the time of renewal, but those of us with a few beers under our belts and even more miles on our butts find spring to be simply a false promise of greenery destined to wither, a flowered, frenzied promise never meant to be kept.’
Crumley is one funny and eloquent writer for a man pushing the allegedly mellowing age of sixty. The world needs as many reactionary moralists who believe in ghosts as it can get, particularly the kind with the balls to end a book about a Mexican tree duck with
‘How am I going to explain to the Government where this money came from?’
‘Fucking lie about it,’ I said. ‘They don’t mind lying to you.’
Yo! Crumley, where the hell were you hiding when my ass was obliged to winter in Montana? Probably recovering from One to Count Cadence, the Vietnam novel, released for the first time in the UK, in tandem with The Mexican Tree Duck. Think of it as a multiple nuclear warhead.
I had thought that I’d read every book ever remaindered on Vietnam. After putting down One to Count Cadence, I realised that I’d missed the deepest of the lot. Less than a third of this pyrotechnic narrative is set in Vietnam and, when you fathom that Crumley wrote this saga about men of strength and personal honour in 1967 ... well, here we have a man writing about war and lies and apocalypse long before Sony cassette-players brought Jimi Hendrix to the jungle and Francis Ford Coppola discovered it was cheaper to rent Asians in the Philippines. As the Christian Serbians evaporate the Bosnian Muslims, and the African butchers sharpen their machetes in the rain-forest, the song in One to Count Cadence evokes the difference between being a soldier and being a warrior. Sometimes, a good gun is the only place to find justice and humanity, and you ain’t, for damn sure, gonna see that on CNN.
One to Count Cadence begins and ends in 1962, when a foul-mouthed and clandestine US Army security outfit is relayed from the Philippines to Vietnam Hill 527. It’s on this flat triangular peak, with a surrealistic nipple smack in the middle of it and the idiot Lt Dottlinger fast on the wings of a jet above it, that Crumley condenses the Vietnam experience in what to me is the most powerful raw line of prose to have emerged from the blood jungle:
I still confused being a soldier with being a warrior. That small, mean part of me which had wanted to care about rank and security and privilege was dying, and with the death of order began the birth of something more monstrous, ah, but so beautiful. My heritage called, and though it would be many long moons before I answered, the song had burst my cold, ordered heart and I hated in the ringing sweep of the sun, and I lived.
It doesn’t take a lot of taxpayer dollars to kill people, if you know just who to kill. In Vietnam, America was in the wrong country, killing the wrong people, with the wrong weapons, and for the wrong reasons. That much is history, and the world today pays a dear price for that fiendish lesson in American foreign policy. Crumley’s Sgt Jacob Krummel is bitter: ‘If politicians, revolutionaries, reformers, preachers and priests, generals, Gold Star Mothers and the Daughters of the American Revolution, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sons of the Republic, if they had to field-dress and butcher and eat all the useless dead they contract with warriors to produce, then ... God, how the beef market would fall.’
There’s a lesson floating around in One to Count Cadence, though it may be too late and too caustic for digestion so many years, illegal arms-deals and political scandals alter the Vietnam War. ‘You didn’t like killing those cats.’ says Private First-Class Joe Morning to his protagonist Sgt Krummel, ‘but something inside said that was the right thing to do; even if it was a shitty thing it was the right thing at the right time ... I thought you were going to kill me. And after I got over being scared, and mad, I thought maybe you would have been right to kill me, and I wondered why you ever bothered to save my ass all those times, why you cared.’
Salvage is not looting, Operation Desert Storm had nothing at all to do with war, and both The Mexican Tree Duck and One to Count Cadence hang out the challenging moral question that all super-power governments absolutely refuse to answer in times of crisis: when does an asshole become a turd and deserve to be whacked? Fidel Castro, for example, is an asshole. He’s not a turd, but the American Government for years tried to assassinate him and continues to blockade Cuba. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is a turd, but the UN treats him like a cute cocktail waitress and the American Government flies him around aboard US aircraft. Asking world leaders to respond to such questions during a globally-televised, White House press conference is not considered to be a smart career move in journalism. I suppose that’s why we have tequila and James Crumley, neither of which is served at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But there ought to be one editor left in the Washington wasteland with the moxie to slip Crumley into the place to ask the one clean and sharp question. You’d have to buy him a Brooks Brothers suit, but it would be well worth the investment.