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Missoula

April 21, 2013

The following is a short travel piece I wrote back in 2008, for no-one in particular. I was travelling to Missoula, a pilgrimage of sorts, not just to the tiny hamlet of Bonner, MT, but also to Charley B’s bar, for reasons that will become apparent.

I’m here. Perhaps, like Jack Torrance in The Shining, I’ve always been here.

I arrived in Missoula, MT by way of Bonner, MT, at around 4.30. By 5.30 I am sitting in the seat that someone had kindly left free for me in Charlie B’s bar, ‘On the corner of space and time’ as the sign above the bar says.

I almost didn’t go in; it made me seem too eager. But then I reminded myself that you can build these things up too much in your mind and, given that I’d flown four thousand miles and driven another thousand to get here, delaying any longer seemed foolish. This is James Crumley’s bar, a place he described in his novels and in which he spent an inordinate amount of time, described by the author himself as a great bar in a state full of good bars.

If you haven’t read Crumley, you should. He writes crime fiction, but that shouldn’t put you off; he’s one of the ones who transcends the genre, his prose rhythmic and muscular, shot through with irony and resignation in a world that constantly disappoints. Here’s a sample, the famous first line from The Last Good Kiss, a title and opening line that are almost good enough to make you put it down straightaway, convinced that it can only go downhill from here: ‘When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.’

Charlie B’s doesn’t disappoint. I’d said to a friend that I’d probably get here and feel let down, and he said that the next bar would be better, a pretty good metaphor for life, or at least for the lives of optimists – amongst which I count myself, whatever patina of cynicism I may affect.

I’d really just stepped out to get some air and to assess the town. The welcome at the hotel had been warm and Missoula already felt good, even the sterile supermarket where I’d stopped for essential supplies like beer and water. And downtown Montana felt good too. In my experience, the centre of most small American towns has been ripped out, retailers fleeing to malls, restaurateurs following to new developments. But Missoula is very much alive, doubtless helped by the proximity of the university which means cheap places to eat and numerous coffee shops. I visited a bookstore, proud of its Montana heritage, keen to promote its authors, and discovered a book of essays by Crumley that I haven’t read (I’ve read all the novels). He re-iterated the point that Missoulians are the friendliest people, a line taken by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It: ‘The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.’

I saunter up North Higgins and spot Charlie B’s on the other side of the road. Like a teenager trying to appear aloof to the girl with whom he is smitten, I pass by, but when I come back down the same road, I peer in and enter. It’s busy. Busy like a Saturday night. But this is Monday afternoon. The clientele make me feel young and sober. Plenty of grey there, plenty of long hair too, most of it tied in pony tails and enough facial hair to make me glad I haven’t shaved today. I guess my shades, perched on the top of my head, single me out as an out-of-towner; squinting seems more in order. I look up at the racks of framed wooden photos by Lee Nye, seeking out Crumley, but he’s not to be seen. The photos, like their subjects, are weathered, and the same goes for the drinkers in the bar, most of whom are smoking, an oddly refreshing smell in an era of smoke-free pubs in London and New York, even in Spain. To my right are a couple of tables, but the real action is ranged along the bar where about eighteen people are seated, another five or so hovering behind them involved in stuttering conversation. I scan the beers – a good range of microbreweries, amongst them Big Sky Moose Drool which I have promised myself I will order – and take the one seat available. The seating is perfect, a semi-circular bar so that you can hear across groups to conversations further away, and the lack of music means you don’t have to raise your voice though some, with throats scoured by spirits and tobacco, have the kind of burr that cuts through steel. I don’t speak at all. My English accent will sound prissy here. I mumble my order to the barman, a hefty guy with braces who thumbs a huge wad of dollar bills. The pint duly arrives and he wanders away. The barwoman drifts past and I try to pay: ‘The owner sort of takes care of that,’ she explains. I’m none the wiser; is this on the house?

I don’t have my camera with me though taking a photograph here would be wrong: this is a private space, like a church, the service pitched somewhere between Lauds and a Mass – between celebration and a call for expiation. Of more concern is the fact that I don’t have either pen or paper with me but, in a town famed for writers, it might seem a grandiose gesture to ask the bar staff if they could help me out.

I take up the required position, hunched forward, forearms on the bar as if bowed in prayer, and contemplate the pint. Alongside me others have money placed in front of their bottles of Bud and tins of Miller, wagers in some game of chance from which I’m excluded. In front of me are the bottles of spirits that people detective stories – Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Chivas, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Cuervo, Jameson’s, Wild Turkey, Patron. No Herradura, though, Crumley’s drink. It must be there somewhere.

The guy to my right orders two shots to celebrate the imminent return of his brother from Iraq. I sense that this announcement, louder and delivered with chair pushed back, the better for all along the bar to hear, is specifically for me, contact having just been made in his enquiry about using the ashtray. The shots are poured – a pink concoction then one that combines a clear spirit – schnapps? – with whisky. To my surprise, the guy splits the pink concoction with his buddy; and the barwoman guns the spirits. ‘A capable woman’ is the phrase, and a new one arrives, sunburned from a day outside, easy with the customers, assured, confident. She asks me if I want another beer and it’s all I can do to decline, though I somehow manage. I ponder the sign above the bar: ‘Keep Missoula weird’.

I call over the other barwoman and again try to pay.

‘Charlie B took care of it,’ she says. She pauses for a moment before, by way of explanation adding: ‘You’ll be back.’

‘How does he know?’ I ask.

She shrugs.

James Crumley outside Charley B's bar in Montana

James Crumley outside Charley B’s bar in Montana


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