, a great friend and tennis buddy from my notorious Missoula years — back before the majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy wannabe lit set ever got wind of the place and wrecked it with fern bars and wine boutiques — walks into a restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho, and sees, who? — none other than Clint Eastwood
standing at the bar. True story. Steve steps right up to the bar and turns to Eastwood and says, "Hi, my name's Steve Krauzer, and I'd like to buy you a drink."
Krauzer orders two whiskies, then tells Dirty Harry he's in town for a writer's conference. As a matter of fact, says Steve, he's published a dozen or so western novels, if he doesn't mind saying so, all under a pseudonym, of course, and some private-eye pulp fiction, a couple of joke books, and even a film or two. Not too shabby for a guy on the sunny side of 40. Eastwood's impressed. The shots arrive. They toast to pulp fiction and loose women, then drain the fire. Then Krauzer says, "So, tell me, what do you do?"
That, ladies and gentlemen, was pure Krauzer chutzpah (the late, great Art Buchwald defined chutzpah as the behavioral hallmark of a guy on trial for killing his mother and father who asks for mercy from the court because he's an orphan). Krauzer was the original funny Jew from Manchester, New Hampshire! As his friend Bryan di Salvatore wrote in Steve's obit a couple of weeks ago, Steve — when he was on — was the funniest son of a bitch west of the Cayahooga. By turns, Steve's comedic shtick was searingly sardonic one moment, then self-annihilating the next — revealing a breathtaking arsenal of weapons that lurked in the high voltage brain behind those darting brown eyes. If you missed his act this time around, be on the lookout for him in your next life. Some people use humor like a stiletto. Krauzer used it like a rack of billy clubs. He was the original irreverent East Coast transplant, the original Yalie for all seasons, and he, like many of us, fell under the spell of western landscapes framed by our westward facing windshields when he was young enough to make the most of it.
That romance began for Krauzer on a road trip he took shortly after college, in the early '70s. He never looked back. The great loves of his life were whiskey, games of chance, and pulp fiction, not necessarily in that order. The man was a writing, card-playing, drinking machine. He could bang out a dozen publishable pages of prose before breakfast, after sitting up half the night with 'da boyze' in a room full of blue smoke and a floor full of peanut shells and empty bottles. Krauzer was so prolific in his heyday that he wrote three novels a year (all published) without ever missing a tennis date, a softball tournament, a raft trip, a card game, or a deadline. Not your average 'skill set.'
Those were the wild and carefree years in Missoula, before big sky country got itself discovered by the Hollywood crowd. Once that happened, there was no going back to innocence and decency any more than you could undo your circumcision. Back then, folks said Montana was a small town with the longest main street in the world. It was true. You could still use food stamps to pay off the bail/bondsman, or to buy poker chips at the $5 draw table in the backroom at the Oxford Café if you were a little short on rent money. Looking back from the vantage point of a new millennium, those years seem far too bawdy and imaginative (and faintly surreal) to describe in detail without taxing credulity. Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, Tom McGuane, Bud Guthrie, and Wendell Berry were among the many wordsmiths who regularly cycled through town to drink of the waters and partake of the hilarity. And for that, there was never a shortage of culprits willing to throw another cup of gasoline on the fire, or, for that matter, ready to throw a tire iron at the canine patrol van on a snowy night. Just to see what would happen. Our adventures usually involved some combination of golf clubs, fishing rods, canoes, side-by-side shotguns, rafts, hunting dogs, big coolers, borrowed cars, siphon hoses, rubber checks, and police. Folks like William Kittredge, Jim Crumley, Dick Hugo (Dick's widow, Ripley, has a new book of poems out that's wonderful), Bryan di Salvatore, Jim Welch, Richard Ford, Max Crawford, Rick deMarinis, Peter Stark, and Bill Vaughn, to name a few, all piled into those jalopies at one time or another, and there was never any way of knowing where we would end up, break down, or run out of luck, booze, money, food, or jokes, out in the high, wide, and lonesome.
We were damn lucky to have those years, before A River Runs Through It, the movie, came to the silver screen and forever altered the anything-goes aspects of life under the Big Sky. The movie's credits were still running when the gentile set arrived with their Orvis fishing rods and Lexuses and started building ten thousand square-foot starter castles on blue ribbon trout streams. That heralded a new day, for sure, and those of us with Zebco reels and Volkswagens didn't quite know what to make of it. Somebody at the Chamber of Commerce decided the town's image — affectionately described as "poverty with a view" — needed a facelift and an attitude adjustment. Fast. Gentrification hit us like a white out blizzard at a July picnic.
Some of us survived the town's (and state's) upwardly mobile demise, and some of us didn't. Some of us hung on and settled down with beautiful (don't cha know — they're all beautiful) and talented women in tidy little bungalows on the pretty tree-lined streets in the university district, and some of us drifted away in search of the rest of our lives. But life doesn't happen out of sequence, and things that good, that authentic, eventually devolve toward the destructive. At some point the attrition rate goes vertical, an inevitable turning that Dick Hugo warned us about in a poem entitled "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg." Nothing that good, said Hugo, ever outlasts itself except in the residue of memory, and what it leaves behind, as often as not, are ghosts inhabiting ghost towns. So grab the brass ring, if you dare, and don't whine when it slips out of your fingers. Take your medicine and move on. Good advice for much of what ails us.
So, for awhile there, we had our shot. And we took it. We made a great run at the wild side, and then, for most of us, it was over. No regrets. Wouldn't trade it for anything, and I, personally, wouldn't go back to that mayhem for love or money. But for Krauzer, our funniest, zaniest, and most heartbreaking clown, life without the circus wouldn't have been worth living. The world of pulp fiction lost one of its masters this March past. He died alone, drained by a hemorrhage that left him as emptied of life as a deflated holiday yard ornament — exactly, come to think of it, the way he would have written it.