It doesn't take much to make me want to devour any James Sallis novel that might come my way. And Willnot, his latest, certainly does not make me want to alter that opinion. So what that, even for a Sallis novel, it's farther away than ever from what one normally thinks of as crime fiction. That's okay with me. After all, we live in a criminal culture, so anything that exposes that fact or digs into the culture, constitutes, as far as I'm concerned, crime fiction. On the other hand, Sallis has always used crime fiction, as any writer of his calibre might, to talk about other things- finding one's place in the world, how we seek some kind of community despite feelings of estrangement, finding solace in literature, music and relationships, no matter how transitory those things might be.
And Willnot is yet another Sallis title that, like Drive/Driven, suggests a grammatical pun, if not parsing. Here it's not just present and past that matter, but a contraction that goes right to the heart of domesticity. But let's not be too hasty or silly in calling the book and town it's named after Won't, even if that contraction expresses the condensed small-town reality, the obstreperousness and marginality of those living in what appears to be such a convivial atmosphere. It's in this town in some unnamed state that Dr Lamar Hale and his partner Richard, a schoolteacher, reside. The book, sprinkled, as often the case, with references to Sallis's favourite sci-fi writers and hardboiled writers, opens with Lamar called out to deliver his verdict on a grave uncovered on the outskirts of town containing several bodies. At any rate, that's simply the hook on which Sallis hangs his novel, and not the commencement of some tough-guy crime narrative. But, all the same, prescient, not only about what's to come, but the fact that this is a novel about what lies just beneath the surface- whether a grave or history itself- and how everything impinges on everything else. As for Lamar, what better investigator than a doctor; that is if one's intention is to investigate the human condition and that thin ice that separates past and present, life and death, sickness and health, fact and fiction. With a license to speculate as well as to cure, a doctor here is the ideal substitute for the perceptive private eye now so familiar to readers that, exceptional circumstances aside, one winces whenever they appear on the scene.
And a word must be said about the way Sallis treats Lamar and Richard's relationship. Which he does this with a matter-of-factness befitting the era we live in, and a casual humanity that reminded me of the way the late Kent Haruf treats his characters in novels like Plainsong and Eventide. At other times, Willnot's wit comes across as a stripped-down, albeit more meditative, version of one of Andrew Coburn suburban noir novels like Voices in the Dark or No Way Home. And like Haruf's Holt, Colorado, or Coburn's Bensington, Massachusetts, Sallis's Willnot is not quite the idyllic place it appears to be. Yes, it's a place that attracts odd but decent people in search of tranquility, community and small town life. But, like any place else, it too is affected by outside events and circumstances, be it war, austerity, malaise, or the whims and crimes of others. Still, anyone who stops off in Willnot, whether house hunter or female FBI agent, can't help but be affected by the town's somewhat dated ethos.
Willnot is, in fact, an extraordinary book, not just about place, but the interaction between past, present and future. So one moves lightly over a terrain that includes those graves, pulp sci-fi books published by Lamar's father (in a twist on the usual parent-child relationship, Lamar's dad is disappointed when his son announces that he wants to be a doctor rather than a writer), and the past, including a study of early American utopian communities by Richard's twelve year-old student. At the centre of it all, smack in the present- though he does have penchant for meandering through his past- is Lamar, dispensing information, making diagnoses, performing minor operations and writing prescriptions, while Richard performs teacherly tasks, while joking in the face of a world rapidly melting around him. Meanwhile, a veteran of the Iraq or Afghan war, whom Lamar once took under his wing some years before, returns, bringing the war with him. As customary in a Sallis novel, there are various casualties and any number of aphorisms pointing the way, perhaps the most fitting being one not included, Gramsci's The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions without becoming disillusioned. This might be one of the saddest of Sallis's novels. But, in its recognition of the fragility of everyday life, it also just might be one of his most humane. And maybe one of his best. As the narrator says, "Going on is what it's all about."
(a version of this review can be found at the Crime Time website)
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.