Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Salt River by James Sallis
In this, his third Turner novel, Sallis demonstrates the degree to which his writing reflects his long-held revisionism regarding the poetics of the genre. More interested in plot as a process rather than a means to an end, Sallis’s narratives invariably include fictional memoir, meaningful quotations, episodic rumination, diversions, non-sequitors and a great deal of atmosphere. A deputy sheriff of a small town outside Memphis, Turner, a former therapist who has served time in Vietnam as well as the penitentiary, doesn’t investigate events so much as respond to them. Still, stuff happens, carrying with it a knock-on effect when it comes to others in Turner’s small community. In fact, this might constitute a more realistic, not to mention subversive, approach than that which one often comes across in a genre so thoroughly saturated in excess. It’s not that Turner is passive, so much as resigned to his work and reflective when it comes to his past and the human condition. Here it’s been two years since his girlfriend, Val, was shot and Turner is still alone, still grieving, and still marginally removed from the world. Yet he does his job as best he can, responding to calls that the sheriff’s estranged son has been involved in a car accident, that an elderly woman has been kidnapped and beaten, and that Val’s old banjo picking partner, Eldon, has turned up with news that he might have killed someone. As usual, some of these crimes coalesce, while others remain unconnected. As we come to expect from Sallis, Salt River is filled with insight, redemption, and tantalizing passages, like the following: “I was a psychologist once, I was a cop who had seen some of the worst mankind had to offer and an ex-con who had been privy to society’s best, gnarled efforts at greatheartedness and manipulation. Altruism gets handed to me, I’m automatically peeling back the label, looking to see what’s underneath.” There might be fewer music references here, but I liked Salt River even more than Cypress Grove and its predecessor, Cripple Creek, and, at a honed down 150 pages, was able to gobble it up in a single reading. Salt River, unique and truthful, places Sallis further than ever outside mainstream crime fiction. Not unlike Turner himself.