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Tough-Guy Nostalgia : THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK, <i> By James Crumley (The Mysterious Press: $19.95</i> ;<i> 256 pp.)</i>

<i> Bob Shacochis' most recent book is "Swimming in the Volcano" (Scribner's)</i>

When James Crumley last published a novel--"Dancing Bear,” in 1983--readers and critics went . . . well, let’s say ballistic, in recognition of Crumley’s chosen genre--private-eye thrillers--and the author’s unapologetically American romance with firearms. For writing hip, smart detective fictions and displaying hard-muscled literary sensibilities, Crumley was touted as heir apparent to the genre’s founding fathers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Ross Macdonald et al. He was blessed with a cult following, danced with Linda Ronstadt at his publication party, and Vintage Contemporaries soon reissued “Dancing Bear” and Crumley’s earlier works--"The Last Good Kiss” and “One to Count Cadence"--in its line of instant classics. Translation: A legend was born.

But 10 years is a risky length of time for a writer to keep an audience waiting. A lot of water--and mud--flows under the literary bridge. Tastes change. Yesterday’s fashion is today’s cliche. The tag “long-awaited” begins to grate on the author’s nerves and as the hiatus between books expands, so do the rumors, as well as the expectations, both of which attach to the work as excess baggage.

Not that Crumley’s narrative juices ran dry in the interim. Much of the past 15 years the author spent working, not on his newest offering, “The Mexican Tree Duck,” but on an expansive novel set in Texas, “The Muddy Fork,” where nary a PI wanders the landscape. Crumley wrote hundreds of pages (at one point, 800) and threw them away. Somewhere in the process, Crumley’s confidence, by his own admission, faltered. In 1991, he confided to an interviewer that he couldn’t get the novel’s voice or thematic range wrestled to the ground. In the same interview, he also made reference to the dire financial need that motivated the writing of “Dancing Bear.”

Perhaps “The Mexican Tree Duck” suffered a similar set of pressures and irresolution. It’s as if the author couldn’t decide whether he wanted to emulate gonzo Hunter Thompson or earnest James Lee Burke. The resultant voice--a hybrid--is unsteady, emanating whiffs of self-parody, and the novel reeks of commercial acquiescence. Which certainly is no sin, considering the genre, and the rush to pay the electric bill was no detriment to the powerful, poignant “Dancing Bear.” But “The Mexican Tree Duck” is over-boiled with too much goofy macho posturing, half-hearted self-effacing mockery and stale humor delivered in a redneck-hippie-warrior vernacular, which seemed fresh (I think) in the 1970s, but today has all the charm of a starving junkyard dog. Indeed, the sleek, spirited horse the author once spurred into the literary wilds has returned as an old gray mare, headed for pasture.

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Still, one can hardly blame Crumley for saddling her up again, and these objections might strike the author’s fans as unfair--or simply irrelevant--and they might be right, given that “Tree Duck’s” cast of characters rarely miss an opportunity to remind each other that they’ve gotten too old for the crap they find themselves embroiled in. Aging warriors with profound Vietnam hangovers, they are confronted by “that sad moment of seriousness when we had to admit that we were no longer what we had been,” and they don’t want to kill anybody anymore, or so they say. Most of them, especially C. K. “Sonny” Sughrue, the story’s narrator, are infected by what critic Sven Birkerts calls “the nostalgia disease,” unable to recognize the modern world.

Readers last saw Sughrue (“ Shoog as in sugar. And rue as in rue the goddamned day”), Crumley’s badass anti-hero, licking his wounds in the unforgettable “The Last Good Kiss,” published in 1978. Except for a few topical embellishments, however--computers and Peruvian terrorists, for instance--Sughrue’s milieu carries over more or less intact, as familiar and anachronistic as a VW van with psychedelic seat covers: time-warp Meriwether, Montana, peopled by counterculture die-hards, haunted vets, white-trash crazies, tough broads and “fake tough broads,” burn-outs, deceitful lawyers and outlaws. Aspen and Sun Valley have been contaminated by the ruling class, but little else has changed, and this is still territory where it’s lotsa fun, ho ho, to pack your head with drugs and your wallet with drug profits, to shoot guns and bad guys, to bed women and of course leave them, with a bittersweet pang, behind. The bracing heights of human experience seem most frequently expressed by cocaine, assault rifles and fellatio, but that’s a man’s world for you--boys after all will be boys, even as they look 50 in the eye--and we’re all here to have fun until overtaken by violence, at which time the idea is to hunker down with more drugs, more guns, more women and survive. Even the myths in “The Mexican Tree Duck” come festooned with cobwebs.

Our man Sughrue is down and out in Meriwether, hounded by frivolous civil suits, his sinus cavities stuffed with narcotics as he faces still another awful winter, indulging in an existential funk and sleeping on a slab in a defunct morgue, thanks to the charity of the wealthy drug lawyer Solomon Rainbolt, formerly Capt. Rainbolt of the U.S. Army, Sughrue’s old war buddy. By the second page of the novel the Vietnam connection is soundly established, and by the end of the book it actually pays off for its nostalgic bingeing in revelation, exorcism and revenge.

In fact, the underlying dynamics of “The Mexican Tree Duck” are satisfying and praiseworthy: the smoldering and inevitably explosive conflict between the haves and the have-nots, enlisted men and officers, dilettantes and revolutionaries, individuals and governments, falsehoods and truths.

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Nevertheless, it’s unclear, at least to me, how seriously the author intends his readers to take this business. What sets the narrative ball rolling, and the bullets eventually flying, is pure farce, unraveled into a situation which is not innately farcical. Lawyer Rainbolt, for self-serving and less than honorable reasons, lures Sughrue into dirty work with a seemingly innocuous job offer: repossess $5,000 worth of tropical fish from Abnormal Norman, leader of one of the worst motorcycle gangs in America. The scene is full of yucks and reads like a brain-addled amphetamine fantasy; but then Crumley yanks the plug on it, reconnecting Sughrue’s voice to a tone of ludicrous sensitivity:

“The snow-slick roads back to Meriwether gave me plenty of time to consider my life, but sometimes I simply wasn’t interested in my life. So I’d never married, hadn’t had a date in a year, hadn’t slept with a woman in so long I couldn’t remember it, I mean really slept with a woman, but I didn’t seem to care. . . . (The rightful owners) really cared about their fish. I couldn’t fix my life, maybe I could get their fish back. Maybe that was my life, helping those who could still care, even if I couldn’t.”

This isn’t the last time Sughrue gets soulful, but it’s definitely one of the most preposterous and insincere. Anyway, Sughrue resolves the case (with a .50 caliber machine gun), but Abnormal Norman has bigger fish to fry. He’s getting married and he wants his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 6 years old, to attend the wedding. Problem is, the woman he claims is his mother--Sarita Cisneros Pines, the wife of a crooked West Texas millionaire politician--has been kidnaped. The police forces of three states, the FBI, the Secret Service and probably the CIA have been unable to track her down. With Lawyer Rainbolt as the middleman, Norman hires Sughrue to find his mother.

Bodies start piling up on the sidelines, and the author finally seems comfortable with his plot and characters, though he never really overcomes the uneasy marriage he’s made between cynicism and sentimentality.

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Crumley bluffs his way past more than one plot twist, counting on speed and gunplay to cover his moves. Still, there are occasions of fine writing here, vintage Crumley, most often employed to lavish affection on the Western landscape. Moments of wisdom too: “It’s always frightening when the worst sort of people decide to join the best.” There’s an unrelenting assault on political correctness, and, always, a sense of looking backward at the good old days until ultimately, the characters admit, they “couldn’t be old hippie tourists forever,” even the Buffalo Springfield tape sounds tried, and the fun is downright wearisome.

By the end of the trip America itself, it seems, has forgotten how to have a good time, and the real point all along has been nostalgia, as understood by the original sense of the word: from the Greek nostos , which means “to return home and survive.”

No more rock ‘n’ roll in the jungle, boys. Party’s over.


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