In Chuck Kinder's novel, Ralph Crawford and his pal Jim Stark model themselves on the macho-man type of writer. They're swashbuckling, boozing, drugging and womanizing their way to the top of that infamous writer's life, a life that unfortunately leaves numerous casualties in its wake. Not enough, however, to worry these two. They take pride in "living like bold outlaw authors on the lam from that gloomy tedium called ordinary life," being "larger than life characters living legendary as they engaged in high drama and hilarity, the stuff of great stories ... and not simply drunken, stoned stumblebums and barroom yahoos."
And yet the stumblebum pair truly are on their way to fame. Consider Ralph Crawford. Anyone familiar with modern writers can pick him out in a second. Let's see, what famous short-story writer, a reformed alcoholic with the initials R.C., came from a riotous drunken marriage to find fame writing stories based on his sordid past, and died a premature death from cancer a week after marrying his second wife, a well-known poet in her own right?
Then there's Jim Stark, a character suspiciously reminiscent of Grady Tripp, the outlaw writer in the Michael Chabon (a student of Chuck Kinder's) novel Wonder Boys, and who happened to be friend and confidant to said prototype of Ralph. What a scoop. If the voyeurism isn't enough to interest readers, the riotous antics of this oddball pair are.
Poor old Ralph and his old buddy Jim, being the love-lost types, live complicated lives. Ralph, a veteran of 17 years of marriage to Alice Ann and father of what he calls his two "criminal children," juggles his wife and a mistress in Montana and still finds time to dally with female students who wander his way. "Poor old, rotten, Running Dog Ralph, on the road to romance," Jim says, is "the kind of poor sap whose brains are in his dick." Not that Jim is much better.
Jim's first wife marries him only under the mistaken impression that he is a law student and has great future earning potential. When she discovers his raison d'être consists of being simultaneously high on drugs and drunk on alcohol, the cheerleader-cute girl hightails it with friends of her own. Now what should a "trusted friend" of Ralph's do but go set the Montana mistress, Lindsay, straight on some of Ralph's more far-fetched complications. "It is not like Jim is ratting on Ralph," we are told; Lindsay has to pull this information painfully from him. "Jim clearly loves Ralph and is clearly very loyal."
When Jim marries Lindsay the Bermuda quadrangle is complete. Ralph continues to love Lindsay while Jim, and later Alice Ann, resent her for being involved with Ralph. No one is spared love's damage, but what they do have are stories that are always entertaining, if not pretty. In the process, Chuck Kinder deconstructs this kind of man's writer down to his filthy toenails.
"You must give me my just due ... in any success you may have in the future," Alice Ann tells Ralph. Of course, he doesn't. After he's dried out and famous, he commits the ultimate betrayal in denying Alice Ann's integral part in his success. Ralph Cramden, with his fist in the air, threatened to send his Alice "to the moon." Old Ralph Crawford outdoes even that.