A walk on the noir side
LITERATURE, James Sallis once observed, “is not some imposing sideboard with discrete drawers labeled poetry, mystery, serious novel, science fiction -- but a long buffet table laid out with all manner of fine, diverse foods. You go back and forth, take what you want or need.”
This is exactly what Sallis has done in a career that now spans three decades and has resulted in nearly two dozen books. He has grazed liberally across the literary buffet, mixing his interests, putting a little of this with a little of that and relishing the results. As an editor, critic, poet, essayist, translator, biographer and novelist, he has assembled some fine, diverse feasts. The question is: Why don’t more people know his name? Could it be that he’s viewed primarily as a mystery writer -- the literary equivalent of being from the wrong side of the tracks?
Sallis, a Southerner who now lives in Phoenix, is best known for his series of six crime novels set in New Orleans -- “The Long-Legged Fly,” “Moth,” “Black Hornet,” “Eye of the Cricket,” “Bluebottle,” and “Ghost of a Flea” -- all of which feature a black detective named Lew Griffin. He finished writing the Griffin books in the late 1990s and in 2003 started a new series with the novel “Cypress Grove,” set in rural Tennessee and featuring a white detective named Turner. The second Turner novel, “Cripple Creek,” has just been published, and it affords an opportunity to take a look at the long career of this remarkable writer.
Sallis has published story collections, as well as volumes of poetry, essays and books on music and writing, and reviews (for this paper, among others). He translated Raymond Queneau’s “Saint Glinglin” and wrote a highly praised biography of Chester Himes, one of his literary heroes. Just last year, Poisoned Pen Press issued his slim novel, “Drive,” which one critic called a perfect piece of noir fiction and which earned him comparisons to Raymond Chandler. With the exception perhaps of Walter Mosley, I can think of no other writer -- especially a so-called crime writer -- who ranges so freely in his work and makes social and racial concerns (“this unspoken apartheid we live with still,” as Sallis puts it) so central to his fictive worlds.
Like Mosley’s hero Easy Rawlins, Lew Griffin is acutely aware of being a black man in a white world. You can read the Griffin novels and come away convinced that the author is African American, though Sallis is in fact white. He can then turn the tables and create a hero like Turner -- an older white detective, retired from an urban police force, who just wants to be left alone in his cabin in the woods. Black, white, urban, rural: It’s as if a kind of primordial American consciousness, split long ago along racial and geographical divides, had been united and found voice in a single author.
The strange thing is that, aside from the color of their skin and the difference in their ages, Griffin and Turner seem like pretty much the same man.
Griffin is a lover of books. The New Orleans novels are packed with literary allusions. The first dozen pages of “Bluebottle,” for instance, feature references to Emily Dickinson, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Blaise Cendrars and Longfellow -- the list goes on. Sometimes writers even become characters, as Himes does in “Black Hornet,” delivering a lecture on how blacks have been turned against themselves in 20th century America to become their own worst enemies.
In the new series, Turner also quotes writers, but his real passion is reserved for music, from the Carter Family to Blind Willie McTell. He’s a troubled man, a Vietnam vet with a failed marriage and two children he’s lost track of, one of whom turns up unexpectedly in “Cripple Creek.” Turner has also served time for killing his partner on the Memphis police force during a domestic dispute. Jailed for eight years, he studied for a degree in psychology while behind bars and later worked as a therapist until he decided to give it all up and retire to the woods.
Unlike Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who had a confused and sometimes even savage reaction to women (more often than not the killers in his stories), Sallis’ heroes form loving if somewhat tentative relationships. But just as Griffin and Turner seem to share many traits, the women they love also resemble one another. This isn’t so much a fault as an observation; there’s a refreshing tenderness in these books that gives the lie to the idea that hard-boiled fiction requires emotionally distant men.
In “Cripple Creek,” Turner is in love with Val, a woman who works as an attorney for the state and is also a musician. They spend their evenings together drinking wine, eating fried squirrel and listening to music on the porch of Turner’s cabin. Steamy sex is downplayed in favor of loving friendship. The plot centers on a routine traffic stop gone bad; when the driver turns out to have a large amount of cash in his trunk, he’s jailed, but his friends arrive to break him out and the sheriff and his assistant are beaten in the process. Turner, the acting assistant sheriff, traces the problem to a crime syndicate in Memphis and heads to the city to deliver his message: Keep your rotten business out of our town. But he’s not so successful. One after another, the thugs and hit men keep turning up, intent on silencing him and his investigation.
Just as we don’t really read Chandler for his plots, story is only half the draw of a Sallis novel. Like Chandler, Sallis creates wonderful characters and a vivid sense of atmosphere. To read his New Orleans books, written long before Hurricane Katrina, is to be struck by the city’s already decaying fabric. “New Orleans,” he writes in “Bluebottle,” “is riddled with these inexplicable lapses: you’ll have whole blocks or sections abandoned, boarded up or kicked in, then right next to it everything’s fine.” It’s a place of contradiction, “[t]wo diminutive humpback bridges Huey Long might have left behind
But Sallis is good on other places too. In “Drive” -- the story of a stunt driver who turns to driving getaway cars -- Sallis gets how, in Los Angeles, “[e]ach evening, light flattened itself against the horizon trying heroically to hang on, then was gone.” He can portray the demotic bustling life of cities as well as the slower rhythms of a small Southern town, where all the women are called “Miss,” no matter how old. In either place, life is by definition full of upset, movement, agitation -- a kind of restlessness that has become endemic to our culture. “Friend of mine claims the story of America is all about the advancing frontier,” the hero of “Drive” says toward the end of the book. “Push through to the end of it, he says, which is what we’ve done here at land’s end, there’s nothing left, the worm starts eating its own tail.”
As a tool of social conscience, the mystery occupies a unique place in literature. In an essay about Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Sallis puts it this way: “[T]he crime novel gives space and opportunity to address contemporary society as does no other venue, to recreate the actual textures and presence of street life and social levels ... the flux of assumption and disinformation that keeps the social order afloat, the rifts between reality and appearance that both the individual and society must negotiate again and again.”
This seems truer now than it ever did. When you consider what’s happening in the world, Sallis notes in “Cripple Creek,” “[y]ou get to wishing you could go for a swim, wipe it all away.” He knows that what you see “gets in your head like some kind of parasite and won’t turn loose, it just keeps biting you, feeding on you.” The solution, he suggests, is not to despair but to engage the world ever more fully; the concept of giving back to society becomes a theme throughout his books.
Reading Sallis, we can’t help but be aware of the intelligence behind the work, as well as how much reading he has done in his life. He’s an erudite man, and this informs the work at the deepest level. For him, reading is the most subversive activity in life: “Open any true book,” he has written, “and you begin to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Nothing is more redeeming than that, or more dangerous.”
Mystery is not a subgenre to him, but rather a finely shaped container to be filled with all the tender morsels of his imagination -- those fine literary foods of which he speaks. Like Mosley, whose most engaging novels are still the Easy Rawlins books, Sallis is most successful when telling stories about cops and crooks. Yet who can blame him for wanting to flex different literary muscles? The amazing thing about Sallis is the way he continues to mine a genre for all its possibilities.
He seems to have adopted an attitude toward mysteries very much like the one Chandler eventually did. Early on, Chandler longed to write literary fiction, to try different forms and avoid getting stuck. In 1939, the year he published his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” he had his wife, Cissy, type into a notebook his plans for the future. He wanted to write a dramatic novel, as well as six or seven fantastic stories -- an ironic tale, a spooky story, a farcical tale, even a pure fairy tale, as well as three more detective novels to be written over the next two years.
At the end of this list, Cissy added a comment, using her nickname for him. “Dear Raymio,” she wrote, “you’ll have fun looking at this maybe, and seeing what useless dreams you had. Or perhaps it will not be fun.” Chandler responded to her comment several times over the next few years. “It was not,” he wrote a year later. A few months after that, he reaffirmed this feeling with one word: “Check.” In another nine months, he wrote, “Double Check,” and three years later, “God help us.”
But by the time he made his last notation, dated almost five years later, he had changed his mind. “Yes it was [fun],” he wrote, “because I had now achieved it, although not with these stories.” He put his trust in the mystery novel, and to the end of his life it served him very well. It appears to be doing the same for Sallis, who is one of our finest existential novelists. In a world beset by violence, he reminds us of what it is to be a human being. *
From Cripple Creek
Just inside the city limits, I stopped at Momma’s Cafe for coffee and a burger. Place was all but hidden behind a thicket of service trucks and hard-ridden pickups. Even here in the South, central cities become ever more homogeneous, one long stuttering chain of McDonald’s and KFC and Denny’s, while local cafes and restaurants cling to the outskirts as though thrown there by centrifugal force. Nowadays I find I have to lower myself into the city environment, any city environment, by degrees, like a diver with bends coming up -- but I’m going down. And Momma’s was just right for it.
The following James Sallis books (listed from newest to oldest) are discussed in the accompanying piece:
Walker & Co.: 192 pp.,
Poisoned Pen Press: 158 pp., $19.95
Walker & Co.: 256 pp.,
Walker & Co.: 368 pp.,
Ghost of a Flea
Walker & Co.: 238 pp.,
Walker & Co.: 162 pp.,
Eye of the Cricket
Walker & Co.: 190 pp.,
Walker & Co.: 150 pp.,
Walker & Co.: 206 pp.,
The Long-Legged Fly
Walker & Co.: 200 pp.,
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