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Last of the Hard Guys

book cover
By James Crumley
Mysterious Press; 320 pages; $22 cloth

James Crumley's Sugrue and Milo are tough-nut private eyes cracking under midlife crises

By Eric Johnson

THE WINDS of political correctness might blow popular American literature to a place where there are no real hard-boiled detectives anymore. Private eyes of the future may drink Pellegrino water and engage in calm negotiation as an alternative to violence. If that happens, it will be over the cocaine-addled, whiskey-drunk, beaten-bloody and dead bodies of Sonny Sugrue and Milo Milodragovitch.

Author James Crumley's two private investigators are, each in his own way, old-fashioned tough guys. But they're also fine specimens of a new breed of postfeminist man. They are not heartless noir antiheroes; they've been touched by their times.

Neither would win a Mr. Sensitive contest, but they're almost as quick to share a manly hug as they are to slam an uncooperative witness' head into a doorjamb.

And they're a helluva lot more honorable than your run-of-the-mill gumshoe, even if their morals allow for massive drug use and righteous bursts of hyperviolence.

Sugrue and Milo are familiar to Crumley's fans (including literary critics coast to coast) from four previous books--each has appeared in two. Bordersnakes, Crumley's latest, finds them teaming up for the first time. Sugrue has been in hiding out in the West Texas desert, where he has gone native while living in a trailer with his wife and adopted kid. Milo shows up from his home in Meriwhether, Mon., in a brand-new Cadillac and a silk Italian suit, with the firm intention of jumping off the wagon after 10 years of sobriety.

As the old friends get reacquainted over a campfire with a bottle of Herradura tequila and a couple of joints, they realize that they both have scores to settle so they can get on with their lives. Milo convinces Sugrue to join him in a last run, and in alternating chapters, each takes a turn telling the story of their funky quest.

In the time since they last partnered-up, each has become a little more messed up and complicated. While they may have gained some new wisdom, they've also lost their patience. Part of the fun of this book is witnessing these deeply flawed but nevertheless likable men going through a tandem midlife crisis--sometimes lurching violently, sometimes with a bumbling grace.

Bordersnakes could almost get by as a character study of these two intriguing troublemakers. But the fun doesn't stop there. As the pair drifts around Texas and Mexico, with side trips to the Bay Area, Montana and Seattle, Crumley sets locale with gorgeous descriptive prose--he clearly could have been a highbrow essayist writing about the New West if he didn't have such a penchant for sex, guns and dope. And the plot functions like a plot in "real" literature: this book is actually about something important.

IT IS EPIC storytelling, but it isn't a pretty story. These men are driven by that unhealthy need for justice that goes by the name vengeance. In their stubborn refusal to let hard life wear their edges off, somewhat the worse for wear after 50-plus years in the saddle, Sugrue and Milo have gotten tough and bitter, and so they're hair-trigger ready to hit, cut or shoot anyone who messes with them. Worst of all, they display a kind of male pride, very unfashionable today, which borders on vainglory. As a result of all this there are scenes in this book that can be difficult to take.

But these shortcomings are what make Bordersnakes feel real. And when Crumley matches his prose to his story, it can be breathtaking.

Toward the end of the book, Sugrue returns to his trailer to find his family trapped and tied up inside and a small gang of cheap-suited bad guys outside. On principle, he strips to a loincloth and kills the thugs with a Bowie knife:

    I can't go inside covered with blood, can't scrub the blood off me with sand, can't leave the bastard's body sprawled at my front door. So I stash it in their Suburban. And the others, too.

    Then I head for the horse trough to wash away the dark smears that cover my body. I don't know how long I stand naked in the water. Long enough for the blue norther to triumph over the dawn, arriving on blistering gusts of wind and needles of sleet. Long enough to remember the long float down the irrigation ditch, muddy water thick in my mouth, my blood leaking like sand. Long enough to know I'll never be afraid again.

It's not the Odyssey, and Sugrue and Milo are neither one of them Ulysses. But Bordersnakes is classic detective fiction, and these guys among the last and best of the hard-boiled dicks.

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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