An author of compact mysteries rooted in the Deep South, poet and novelist James Sallis saw his profile rise last year after the release of the critically acclaimed Ryan Gosling movie Drive, an adaptation of his eponymous novel. Otherwise best known for his Lew Griffin series, his 2008 novel Salt River follows on from Cypress Grove (2003) and Cripple Creek (2006) and concludes a trilogy since republished in the omnibus, What You Have Left. The protagonist is John Turner, a Vietnam vet and onetime cop who became a therapist after serving nine years in jail after being convicted of the death of his police partner. Now he lives not too far from Memphis in Cripple Creek, working as the Deputy Sheriff.
The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter S and Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which this week is hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. You should head over there right now and check out some of the other selections on offer. It is also part of my 2012 Local Library Challenge, in which I aim to supporting a great and valuable institution currently under threat in the UK from the draconian cuts of the present government by borrowing books from authors that are new to me.
“Strange how, as we age, our lives turn to metaphor”
Two years after the event, Turner is still in mourning after the violent death of his love, Val Bjorn, gunned down on their porch. He seems to be in some sort of limbo, trying to make the most of what he has left but also leading a kind of halting, parenthetical existence, waiting for something though initially we are not entirely sure what that might actually be. He is a lonely figure in his grief, but he is not really alone for much of the book as friends from his past come back to visit. The most significant, on a personal level, is itinerant musician Eldon Brown, who arrives unexpected and on the run from a murder charge in Arlington, Texas. When Turner asks him if he is guilty, his friend answers that he is genuinely unsure of his own guilt. Turner decides to keep him hidden in his home when the law comes looking for him. At the same time a Buick smashes into the side of the City Hall in the small town’s main street. At the wheel is Billy Bates, the son of the sheriff, a troubled young man who, it appears, has stolen the car from a reclusive old woman whose house has been ransacked. It is not long before she too is found. Turner is thus drawn back into his old life to help his friend the sheriff, peripatetically moving from one event to another.
“To me she seemed one of those people who skip across the surface of their lives, never touching down for long, forever changing, a bright stone surging up into air and sunlight again and again.”
This brief novel is long on atmosphere and full of acute observation, with characters frequently stopping to talk, pontificate and comment on the world around them. Interspersed with these are several vignettes made up of the kind of strange portents and macabre events that would be out of place in Yoknapatawpha County. One of the most disturbing involves the discovery of a child that got trapped in a broken down old house and who, being mute, was not able to cry out for help. Not that this would have made any difference as the family seems uncaring about the whole affair, the child’s silence a source of shame and isolation. A bird smashes through a windscreen and eventually much more powerful forces of nature come to devastate the already ruined small town – and then Bates’ wife goes missing.
“I found the handgun eight or nine yards off, plunged into the ground muzzle-first as if planted there and just starting to grow.”
By its conclusion the main plot points have been resolved though this does not really feel like a book with a definitive ending as such. Given that this certainly plays like the third and last part of a trilogy one might have expected something more, well, final, but this is a story about facing the inevitable and waiting for the end. The plot is secondary to the often startling images and fine, poetic juxtapositions tp create a sombre but powerful state of mind. It is a melancholy and morbid book but not necessarily a misanthropic one though this Salt River is inherently sad, focusing totally on people who, one way or another, have pretty much come to the end of the road. Instinctively one might have liked something more definitive on the final page, but Mr Sallis hardly needs any advice on how to write his books as he knows exactly how to convey the feeling and tone he is striving for. Just take this marvelous little physical description:
“A mustache ran in two wings out of his nostrils, as though he had sneezed it into being”
The story does meander a little bit at times, so much so occasionally that I did start to wonder if the structure was not meant to be taken as being entirely linear. But to insist on a more straightforward narrative would be to rob this evocative little book (it’s about 150 pages in length) would rob it of much of its pungent aroma. It’s easy to see why Mr Sallis regularly receives such critical plaudits – He is very, very good.
The author homepage can be found at: www.jamessallis.com/