Friday, August 04, 2006

Reading James Sallis's recent novel Drive, prompted me to post the following review of his previous novel Cypress Grove which, for some reason, never appeared in the magazine for which it was intended.

Exit Lew Griffin, and the cross-cultural transgressions, dark rainy New Orleans nights and trickster-like narratives one associates with that particular protagonist. Enter Turner, a Vietnam vet and ex-Memphis cop, who, while in prison for killing his partner, obtains a degree in psychology, and, on the outside, does a short stretch as a practising therapist. Having seen the worst in people, this jack-of-all hardboiled trades finds himself at the end of the road, metaphorically as well as geographically. It’s only when the sheriff of a nearby small southern town seeks his assistance regarding a murder, that Turner begins to rejoin the world and, in doing so, finds a Capra-like redemption. In other words, as we’ve come to expect from Sallis, it’s a case of investigator, investigate thyself.

Cypress Grove is only slightly less dark and brooding than the Lew Griffin novels, and no less engrossing. As with the Griffin books, it’s the setting, as much as the main character, that creates the tone and pushes the narrative. And it’s the town, rather than Turner’s bucolic refuge, that is the more idealised. Though the sign on its outskirts says “Pop. 1280,” Turner hasn’t wandered into Jim Thompson territory, nor is the sheriff a conniving sociopath, but a compassionate soul all-too-willing to admit that he’s inexperienced when it comes to homicide. Not only are murders a rarity here, but perpetrators are considered neither evil, nor contorted by social conditions, but simply unfortunate victims of circumstance who’ve unknowingly stepped over the edge.

So idealised and engrained in popular culture is this town that it might be a parallel universe, the kind one finds in a Jonathan Carroll novel, in which something is slightly out of kilter. Maybe it’s because this town seems untouched by the Bush’s, Cheney’s and Enron’s of the world. Neither is there a corrupt official is sight, much less any sign of the Klan. Other than the murder, and a bad tempered waitress who comes out of countless films, from Five Easy Pieces to Reservoir Dogs, the most serious crime occurs when a woman half-heartedly wounds her wayward husband. As for Turner, he’s something of an alien invader, arriving to find this world not only recognisable, but more agreeable than he could have imagined. That being the case, the narrative, gliding between past and present, has a dream-like quality, like those B movies about invasions from outer space, prison breakouts and small town paranoia that threaten to subvert one’s expectations, if not the culture, and which Turner stumbles across as he progresses in his investigation. At the same time, who would not want to believe that redemption is possible or that there exists outside mainstream America a town that a stranger can wander into and immediately be accepted? Or is this town just a product of the narrator’s imagination, and the narrative one of those utopian novels written in a time of strife?

Though this seems to be Sallis preparing to move into new territory, one finds the author’s usual array of discrepancies and diversions. In fact, I was, at times, so engrossed in Turner’s observations- “Coffee burps and burbles in the maker, aroma spreading insidiously through the room like an oil spill. I’m fascinated by the fact that the door to the sheriff’s office is locked. One of those weird things in life that seems to be the setup for a punch line you never quite get to.”- and music references that I occasionally lost the thread of a not very complicated plot. But then, when it comes to a Sallis novel, that comes with the territory. Yet the plot gains momentum, taking several turns as Turner is himself turned by it. “[We] want to believe...” says Turner, “that our actions come from elevated motives. From principles. When in truth they only derive from what our characters, what our personal and collective histories, dictate. We’re ridden by those histories, the same way voodoo spirits inhabit living bodies, which they call horses.” Turner might as well have been talking about the writing process. That we are the product of our history is as true for Turner as it is for Sallis or his readers.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Carroll is one of Sallis's favorite writers (he's said so several times in print), so the fact there are traces of JC here is not surprising. Also, Carroll happens to keep one of the most interesting daily blogs on the internet, if you haven't discovered it yet. Really amazing quality.