"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 Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. .  ."

 

It contains the best first line in American crime fiction, and it ends on a note of vengeance so satisfying that only the final pages of MARATHON MAN can rival it. Some of the most beautiful prose in any language or genre dances across its pages. It's funny. Deeply humane. An homage to both THE LONG GOODBYE and ON THE ROAD, it stands inexorably singular in its own right. It's one of the best books ever written about the writing process. It's an ode to the American road and American West, a love song to drinking, screwing, roadside motels, big old automobiles and dive bars. It's the best novel ever written about the '70s. 

 

"It" is THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley and while it may have a peer or two,  it has no better. In telling the story of CW Sughrue, a big-hearted, road-worn shamble of a PI, who goes looking for a ten-years-gone runaway named Betty Sue Flowers, Crumley leads us into an entire generation's search for Home as the hopes of the 60s have been replaced by the bottomless hangover of the late 70s. ("The flower children had gone sour and commercial or middle-class, and even the enemy was tired and broken, exiled to San Clemente.") Along the way we meet Abraham Trahearne, the ridiculous but strangely endearing writer, his wife and ex-wife, (one an enigma, the other an asp), a wonderful old bar matron named-what else?-Rosie, an underground network that rescues battered children and battered women,  countless lost or corrupted souls, and, of course, the inimitable Fireball Roberts, a stout, none-too-bright English Bulldog with a heart as big as Montana and enough similarities with CW to consider them twins of the soul.

 

 

If Crumley's canvas is large, his touch is deft. The experience of reading THE LAST GOOD KISS is both exhilarating and increasingly deceptive. It starts out like a road novel and seems to amble quite by accident into classic noir territory as Betty Sue Flowers' journey-and CW's ten years later-crosses a frontier into the grim, nightmarish world of porn. But again, before we can settle into that world, we take another turn. And another. With each curve in the road, CW is forced to confront his own less-than-admirable notions about women, and the book morphs yet again, this time into a smart and resonant meditation on the ways in which men's idealized visions of women thwart any ability to truly see them.

 

 

When we reach the end in all its pathos and tragedy, its profound and heartbreaking hope, we close the covers not just on a novel but on a world, indelibly rendered, and an era, indelibly mourned. 

 

What other books define a certain decade?

 

 

Editor's Note: Dennis Lehane is the bestselling author of Mystic River and the creator of the Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro novels. He is currently working on a follow up to Gone Baby Gone.

 

Comments
by on ‎10-20-2009 01:46 PM

Amen, Dennis. THE LAST GOOD KISS should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in crime fiction. Wait. Forget I said "crime fiction". Everyone who reads period should read Crumley's book!

 

You've already mentioned ON THE ROAD which certainly defines a segment of the 1950's. How about THE LORD OF THE RINGS for the late 1950's early 1960's? Who can forget FRODO LIVES?

by on ‎10-20-2009 06:17 PM

Dennis..Who is really your favorite Author? Any genre,...or  two.."Mystic River" stills haunts me,your book and the Movie...its great to have you here and read what you are up to,and your thoughts as well....VermontCozy

by Moderator becke_davis on ‎10-21-2009 08:56 AM

I used to think Thomas Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was the definitive book about the Sixties. Hadn't really thought about a definite book/author for the Seventies, but Crumley would definitely be on my short list.

 

Vermontcozy -- I agree. Mystic River stays with you, doesn't it?

by RockwallTed on ‎10-21-2009 04:18 PM

All of Crumley's books should make this list, as all are very good and very relevant to this time period. Although "The Last Good Kiss" seems to get far and away the most press, I'm not so sure it's even his best book (his short stories aren't bad either). "Final Country" is my favorite Crumley book, and the one I reread the most. It is notable in that C. W. Sughrue and Milo, Crumley's two detectives come together for the one and only time, and the story weaves a far more intricate web than any of his others, including "The Last Good Kiss" (partly because you feel as if you are following the characters around in some kind of imprecise drug-haze). I believe it was originally released in 1994, and was Crumley's last major work. I am very sad he passed away last year, as he is one of the very few writers that I really wanted to meet and discuss some of his work. For those hard-core Crumley fans, there is a great scholarly audio interview online if you look around and are interested in his quite bizarre writing process and his unbelievable sense of humor. He will be very missed.

by on ‎10-22-2009 08:48 AM

I love The Final Country too, RockwallTed, but I think you mean Bordersnakes. That's the one book where Milo and C.W. get together to "sweep across America and Mexico on a wild journey of hardcore violence, sex, and cyberspace—a journey that traverses the thin, volatile line between best friends, countries—and life and death".

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