"Realism is a word that doesn't mean a heck of a lot to me. … When you say a novel should be realistic, do you mean everything in it should be perfectly expected? Or that nothing should happen that's out of the ordinary, or that nothing should happen that violates our sense of what can happen? Okay, you can write that way, but the world isn't that way, not to me, not a bit. The world itself is very bizarre."
— Rick DeMarinis
Writing wasn't a vocation to Rick DeMarinis, it was how he moved through life, according to his daughter, Naomi Kimbell. "It's the way he saw the world. Everything was interpreted as story."
DeMarinis, who died on June 12 at age 85, left steady work at age 30 to pursue writing and never turned back. He published 10 novels filled with comedic imagination, cynical honesty and inventive prose, along with six collections of short stories.
He once said, "Never go for an audience. I have only one audience, and that's me," yet he earned the respect in particular of other writers.
Russell Banks ("Cloudsplitter") once wrote of DeMarinis' work, "his art, then, is comedy of a very high order, the comedy of a decent heart enraged." Aaron Parrett of the Drumlummon Institute calls his work "existentialism with a laugh track."
James Lee Burke, a friend since the late 1960s, said he had "an enormous talent, just an honest-to-God talent, and he could write in any number of genres." He compared his versatility to Jack Nicholson's, who falls into his roles so skillfully "that everyone thinks that's the real Jack Nicholson. That was Rick as a writer."
The darkness and contrasting humor grew from a hard childhood. DeMarinis has said his family was "totally dysfunctional," and people close to him described his youth as grim and working class. His father was a small-time member of the Mob in Greenwich Village and his parents divorced when he was young. He spent time in New York City with his Italian family, in Michigan with his Finnish grandparents, followed by a series of moves between California and Texas with his mother.
According to his obituary, when he was young he read books by Mickey Spillane, Irving Shulman and Thorne Smith. He once said, "Luckily, I read writers who loved the language and were funny. I realized that language itself can be funny."
He would rather be entertained than educated, although as an adult he might be found in his office reading the "I Ching," "Ulysses" or Dickens or Cheever, Kimbell said. As a child, he also escaped into ham radio, which she thought was not unlike literature to him — a way to connect with far-away people.
Unlike many writers, he didn't move to Montana with dreams of fly-fishing and producing a great Western novel. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was plopped down in Havre, where he married and had two children.
He enrolled at the University of Montana to get a math degree, then worked for Boeing in Seattle and Lockheed Martin in California, experiences that placed him close to technology and technological concerns that would emerge in some of his books.
While the pay was good, he thought the silo inspections and technical writing were boring. In a 1977 interview, he said his decision to quit and become an author was "a statement of faith, I guess. It's okay to do that, to risk giving up the paycheck, for something you really want to do."
At age 30, he returned to UM to study creative writing. One of his instructors was the poet Richard Hugo, with whom he later became friends. They were both writers from blue-collar backgrounds with an irreverent streak who had Boeing on their resumes.
"The best poets are writing from a real place and not necessarily a canon and a tradition," Kimbell said. "I think that's where Hugo was really coming from, and my dad loved him so much."
DeMarinis once said, "Dick had a way of making you take your own work seriously. ... This is important. Every word I put down on paper really counts."
In Missoula, DeMarinis divorced, met a new wife, (with whom he had his third child, Kimbell) and finished his graduate degree. After a short stint in Seattle working on a novel, he and Carole moved to California where he taught at San Diego State for six years.
His friend and fellow writer Jon Jackson said they met at Eddie's Club (now Charlie's) in the late 1960s. DeMarinis' quiet intelligence immediately made an impression. He was the first author Jackson knew who took popular culture seriously — movies, comic strips, sports, cars, music — things that were considered to be "below serious contemplation if you're intending to be a writer or a poet," he said.
While DeMarinis' had serious concerns, it was always balanced with humor.
"He had this basic, comedic impulse that would kind of undercut what would otherwise be a scientific or intellectual outlook, with the somberness that that implies. Underneath it all was this abiding sense of humor and comedy," Jackson said.
"The Greeks were right. Comedy is chaos, really," he said. It "prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously, and that's what he did," he said.
Jackson sees DeMarinis having "a shrewd and unblinking vision of American life, which he nonetheless loved deeply."
His interest in popular culture is clear in his first novel, "A Lovely Monster: The Adventures of Claude Rains and Dr. Tellenbeck." His spoof on Shelley's "Frankenstein" centers on a sensitive monster questioning his nature in the midst of California surfer culture.
Asked about where some of his absurd plot lines originated, Kimbell said this one grew out of a thought he had while sketching a cartoon for her.
"Frankenstein's Monster must have been a hypochondriac, because how could you not be if you were aware that you were constructed with parts of dead bodies?" she said.
The novel, published in 1976 by Simon and Schuster, was "irresistible," according to the New York Times. "If you can put down a novel about a synthetic man, you aren't human."
After its publication, he and Carole decided to move back to Missoula, where he would pursue writing full time, absent some occasional short-term jobs at UM and out of state.
Kimbell said that he "made a commitment to writing, and at a certain point, he couldn't imagine living any other kind of life."
They set up in a house on Wylie Avenue near his mentor, Hugo, and close friends, James and Lois Welch.
While he was living here, he published four novels: "Scimitar," "Cinder," "The Year of the Zinc Penny," and "The Burning Women of Far Cry."
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Jackson said "Scimitar" was "an astounding view of American life," a "wild and rackety and amusing" book about a technical writer for an aerospace company that is developing a weapons system. It involves kooky diversions like a Howard Hughes-esque tycoon, "acid-rock wakes, domination-theory gurus, eclectic street fighting technique therapists," and more, according to Jackson's 1977 review, where he placed it in the league of Woody Allen, Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut.
As always, the humor and cynicism were in balance. "At the same time, there's this underlying comedy that is destructive of that, or at least attacks that, you can't always take it seriously," Jackson said.
"The Year of the Zinc Penny" is a coming-of-age novel that draws on his own youth in California. Set in 1943, the year that copper was diverted to the war effort and one-cent pieces were made from zinc, he re-creates that world through the eyes of a 10-year-old.
Burke calls it is his masterpiece, one that captures the last of a traditional America that was bound by a sense of community under the threat that "the light of civilization would die."
"Rick wrote about that era and turned it into a sonnet," he said.
In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that "DeMarinis's voice remains distinctively his own, by turns comic and melancholy, lyrical and street smart," concluding that "Without ever resorting to easy nostalgia or cheap sentimentality, Mr. DeMarinis gives us both a picture of the eternal realities of childhood — the humiliations of playground gamesmanship, the cruelties of puppy love — and a tactile portrait of life in the wartime 40's."
"The Burning Women of Far Cry" also set aside some of the zanier conceits of his previous books. In a 1980 article, he expressed frustration that bookshops "keep putting them in the science fiction section, and I don't think they're science fiction at all."
The book, set in the 1950s in a small town loosely based on Missoula with misbehaving characters and absurd humor, was recently republished by the Drumlummon Institute. It's one of the few of his books that is in print.
Parrett, the institute's executive director, came across "Burning Women" in the late 1980s, his first encounter with DeMarinis' work. He thought it was unlikely anything he'd ever read, and was the funniest book he'd ever read — and yet it was so well-crafted.
"The lives of these people are so grim, and yet the stuff that happens to them is so funny," he said.
He became friends with DeMarinis and ran an online fundraiser to get the book back in print. His wife, Nann Parrett, of the Territorial Press, is an editor and graphic designer. When she was working on the layout, he could hear her laughing from another room.
He's sad that he didn't undertake the project sooner, and that the book never caught on with an audience, or a Hollywood filmmaker.
DeMarinis earned good reviews and acknowledgements, and his first novels were with big five publishers, too, but they didn't make much money. Carole worked full time and was often the main provider.
"It wasn't an easy life ... it was pretty much poverty with intermittent bursts of some economic freedom if he sold something or got a grant, but it was hard," Kimbell said.
Nonetheless, Kimbell said her father valued home and stability, due to the nature of his own childhood, and was committed to his family and friends. He worked from home and would make time for her, even for things as simple as drawing airplanes.
Kimbell said her father was most himself trading ideas and conversation with writer friends, who all described him as kind, funny and intelligent.
Burke said DeMarinis used to "call himself my midwife," probably because he changed Burke's career entirely. After a 13-year stretch when all of Burke's manuscripts were rejected, DeMarinis suggested he try a crime novel, since you could write a few chapters and get an advance. Three days later, Burke began writing "The Neon Rain," the first in his best-selling David Robicheaux series, on a yellow legal pad.
By 1988, trying to make a living as a writer became too difficult (he told the Missoulian at the time that "we've been skating on thin ice for too long"), and he was accepted for a teaching job in Texas. While he had been looking for whatever work he could find, they were lucky and took to El Paso, Kimbell said. They learned Spanish (Carole became fluent) and they made trips across the border into Ciudad Juárez. Kimbell thinks the time was likely "exciting because it was so new, and so different, and they weren't totally impoverished."
The new environment rejuvenated his writing, too. He began a series of crime novels set in El Paso, the first of which was "Sky Full of Sand," a romp about a bodybuilder-hotel manager who goes up against bankers in league with cartels. The New York Times said DeMarinis is "one of that lonesome crowd of writers who love the language but aren't afraid to rough it up to save its life."
Kimbell thinks he might have had dreams of reaching a wide audience by going pulpy with his El Paso work, but they were printed by small publishers with corresponding small sales.
"I still think he was satisfied with them because, again, they satisfied that desire for him to explore and have fun and enjoy writing and entertain whoever happened to read them. But that, again, was kind of the sad part for him, is that he was a mid-list writer at a time when the mid-list was going away."
The printings, and therefore the readership, got smaller over the years, "the exact opposite of his goal, which was to reach readers and entertain them," she said.
After 12 years in Texas, he retired, moved back to Missoula and continued writing. He was working through ideas about technology and its dangerous immersive qualities back in 2001, and wondering out loud in an interview about how to classify his work.
"Authors who write satire have very serious agendas disguised as comedy," he said. "I write comedy disguised as satire. I don't have any bones to pick."
In his last years, he had symptoms of Lewy body dementia that limited his movement and affected his cognition in specific ways. Jackson said that he still recognized his friends and could converse with them, but if a visit went on too long he would lapse into hallucinations. (He was aware enough of them to describe them to people later.)
While he could longer write, or even type, Kimbell said "he still felt the desire to write, he still felt the desire to draw from his current set of circumstances, and somehow get that on the page."
Describing why he writes, he once said, "because the language itself, the act of putting words together on paper, is very exciting to me," he said. "I love to do that, that's my disease. I love the sound of combinations of words. I love all the possibilities that words yield."