MISSOULA — Rick DeMarinis was not a fan of Literature (capital L, as he said), that stuffy canon of books foisted upon high school and college students designed to foster reverence for the Western novel but usually achieved only its opposite: boredom. Instead, Rick preferred Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, Irving Schulman’s "The Amboy Dukes," and his favorite, Thorne Smith’s "Topper," not Literature but something more like pulp. Perhaps ironically, Rick is known as a literary writer, and although his goal was to write entertaining, popular fiction, his work was too good for pulp but also perhaps too enjoyable to be enshrined as Literature. Somehow, he struck a balance between quality and entertainment, and his drive to write and entertain readers remained strong up to his death at age 85 from complications due to LBD on June 12, 2019.
Rick DeMarinis was born on May 3, 1934, in New York City to Big Al DeMarinis, an Italian gangster, and Ruth Siik, a dime-a-dance Finnish glamour girl. He spent his early years in a multi-generational, Italian home in Greenwich Village playing stick ball in the street, getting his cheeks pinched by his grandma, and eating pasta, lots of pasta, to the tune of the cajoling phrase: "mangia, mangia, Ricky, eat." When his parents divorced, he was sent to live in a Catholic boarding school before being taken by his mother to Michigan to live with Ruth’s parents, tough, coal-mining Finns who didn’t have much use for a coddled, Italian boy. Later, Ruth moved them back to New York, then to California, then Texas, and then back to California, following work and promises of money. His itinerant life was a lonely one. He filled his nights with novels, movies, and ham radio, and eventually he joined the Air Force to see the world but was stationed at the radar base in Havre.
While in Havre, Rick met his first wife, Mary Lee, and they had two children: Richard and Suzanne. After he was discharged, he spent time working for Lockheed and Boeing inspecting missile silos and crunching numbers. He filled his idle hours with writing and decided to return to school at the University of Montana to study Literature (capital L). Rick and Mary Lee’s marriage didn’t survive the switch from Boeing to UM. Rick met the woman who would later become his second wife, Carole, in a poetry class and had a third child, Naomi.
In 1977 Rick published his first novel, "A Lovely Monster," quit his teaching job at San Diego State, and moved his family back to Missoula so he could write full time. There they lived on Wylie Avenue across the street from his mentor, a man he described as his “real” father, poet Richard Hugo, and down the street from James Welch, longtime friend and writing compatriot. He said his Wylie years were his happiest, although they were some of the most difficult. He published several more novels including "Scimitar," "Cinder," "The Year of the Zinc Penny," and "The Burning Women of Far Cry." He also published collections of short stories and won some awards including two NEAs and the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for Short Fiction, but his writing achievements didn’t generate much income, and this struggle led him to look for another job. He found one at the University of Texas at El Paso, and he taught there for 12 years.
City life in El Paso seemed to suit Rick’s desire to plunge deeper into the underbelly of the world, and he began writing crime fiction. It was still too literary to garner a wide readership, but he loved it, and he always said that’s the reason he wrote: to satisfy himself. Books that came out of this experience include "A Clod of Wayward Marl," "Sky Full of Sand," and "El Paso Twilight."
When Rick retired from teaching, he and Carole moved back to Missoula to pick up where they left off. Family was always important to him, and he wanted to be close to his children and grandchildren who all lived in Montana.
In 2015, Rick received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Montana’s creative writing program, honoring him for his significant literary achievements. Over the course of his career, he published 10 novels and six books of short stories. He taught and mentored students. He was devoted to his friends, his family, and he always encouraged anyone who thought they couldn’t live unless they were a writer to pursue it with everything they had. Those for whom writing wasn’t life or death, he recommended choosing another career.
Rick DeMarinis is survived by his children: Richard DeMarinis and his wife Kathy, Suzanne DeMarinis, and Naomi Kimbell and her husband Bob. His grandchildren include: Melody Harvey, Jeremy Gallagher, Maia Hangas, and Gabriella and Alexandra DeMarinis. He has three great-grandchildren: Anthony and Aiden Harvey, and Seamus Gallagher. His first great-great-grandchild, Greyson Harvey, was born last year.
Rick’s memorial is planned for June 29 at 2 p.m. in the Governor’s Room at the Florence Hotel in Missoula. Please come share refreshments and stories. Humor is welcome. In lieu of flowers, please buy a book you will enjoy at a local bookstore. Condolences and memories may be shared with the family at whitesittfuneralhome.com.