Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dancing Bear by James Crumley

How old is forty-seven? When I first read Dancing Bear in college, that was old -- almost inconceivably so, older than my parents, old unto geezer-dom, old like something historical. But these days it looks like tomorrow -- I'll turn forty-six myself later this year.

So Milo -- Milton Chester Milodragovitch III in full -- is much more immediate these days even if I'm not a borderline-alcoholic, cocaine-abusing ne'er-do-well scion of a rich Montana family. He's tried and failed at a lot of things in his life, and now lives as best he can as a security guard for a local company owned by a Colonel Haliburton. (Possibly a coincidence in a 1983 novel, though the Evil Empire Halliburton -- with two Ls -- has been around pumping oil and making money since 1919.)

Milo was a private eye -- Crumley's earlier novel The Wrong Case was set during that time -- and is an orphan and only child, "the last of the Milodragovitches," as he says. But now he's just counting days until he turns fifty-two, finally comes into his inheritance and, Crumley strongly implies, finally drinks and drugs himself into the grave. He's a damaged man who takes little enjoyment in anything, and drinks peppermint schnapps even though he hates it because it's the only way he's found to balance the terror of being sober with the black hole of drinking. His use of cocaine is less restrained, though Crumley shows Milo in a world where nearly everyone is willing to do a bit of coke here and there -- maybe it's the early 1980s, maybe it's Montana, maybe it's just fiction.

Milo is dragged out of that uneasy rut into a much more uneasy life by Sarah Weddington, a local rich lady who had an affair with his father forty years before, an affair Milo was often in the middle of. Sarah, now old, claims to be eccentric and bored, and asks Milo to investigate a couple she sees meet regularly at an intersection outside her window. It's a weird job, and the justification doesn't really make sense to Milo even at the time, but it's a big pile of money, and he's desperate for something to change in his life.

That's what sets Dancing Bear going: what seems like a frivolous tail job, a chance to do some surveillance, waste time, and make too much money. But Milo is soon up to his neck in murder and drugs, though he has no idea at all why. For most of the length of Dancing Bear, he's reacting and running, using his investigative skills to keep himself alive and try to dig into this strange case, without much luck. Only at the very end does it become clear -- or as clear as it will ever become.

Milo is an unforgettable character, vividly imagined. You wouldn't want to be him, but you know him deeply. Dancing Bear is more scattered and less focused than Wrong Case was -- and Crumley's thrillers would only get more so from this point, with ever more ever older men doing ever more drugs and brandishing ever larger weapons. But Dancing Bear is still a strong portrait of a broken man, showing what he can manage to accomplish in spite of the break.

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