Others of My Kind by James Sallis

“The past is what we are, even as we’re constantly leaving it.”

After The Killer is Dying, Drive and Driven, James Sallis returns with a complete change of pace with Others of My Kind, a thoughtful, deeply troubling look at the long-term effects of a heinous crime. Following the phenomenal success of the film Drive, Hollywood must have its eye on this author’s work, but I’m not sure if anyone will touch Others of My Kind without significant revision due to its controversial elements.

others of my kindSet in the not too-distant future, we find a troubled America in turmoil. Jenny Rowan, a single woman who works as a video editor for a Washington DC television station returns home one day to find Jack Collins, a young detective from Violent Crimes waiting for her. Collins is there for help.

Look, I’m just gonna say this. I spent the last few hours up at the county hospital, Maricopa. Young woman by the name of Cheryl got brought in there last night. Twenty years old going on twelve. Way it came about was, the neighbors got  a new dog that wouldn’t stop barking. They didn’t have a clue, tried everything. Then, first chance the dog had, it shot out the door, parked itself outside the adjoining apartment and wouldn’t be drawn away. Finally they called nine-one-one. Couple of officers responded, got no answer at the door, had the super key them in.

Inside the apartment was a young girl stuffed in a closet, obviously the victim of some sexual sadist.  Now in hospital, Cheryl, damaged and traumatized has simply stopped talking. No one knows who she is, where she came from, or how long she’s been kept a prisoner. Perhaps she’s suffered from “sensory deprivation,”  and someone else speculates that she’s “retarded.” According to Collins, she just stares  “like she was behind thick glass looking out.” Jenny understands Cheryl’s reaction because when she was eight years old she was kidnapped by a child molester, and kept imprisoned in a box under his bed for two years.

I’m not sure I was much more than a doll for him. Something he took out to play with.

Jenny Rowan has reinvented herself from a past in which she has only a few fractured childhood memories before she was taken from the Westwood Mall. later, known as the “mall girl,” she grows up in the child-care system.  How does anyone ‘recover’ or deal with a past like this? Jenny never sees herself as a victim, and instead she builds an independent life, but she’s always a little ‘different.’ Valuing her privacy and finding comfort from isolation, Jenny is still, according to one friend, in a “box.” Several things change that–Jenny’s relationship with Cheryl, a relationship with a group of squatters, and even a relationship that reaches into the White House. Perhaps part of Jenny’s growth comes from the knowledge that other people reached out and gave help to her, and now it’s time for her to do the same.

In Days in the History of Silence, a book I read recently, the main characters opt for silence rather than discuss some of the more painful incidents in their lives. That novel asks how we cope with the negative, the darkness in our lives. Do we pretend it never happened or do we allow it to consume us? In Others of My Kind, Jenny has taken a very different approach to her darkest experiences. She understands that they are part of the mosaic which forms her character. Those years are not shoved out of her memory; they’re part of who she is. It’s ironic, really, that Jenny’s work life is spent editing video down to form a desirable narrative. Life isn’t that easy–although we typically shed memories we’re rather forget and shape others in our favour.

Jenny is an unusual combination of characteristics. She doesn’t need people around and enjoys distance in her relationships, and yet she’s not afraid to let people in her life. Her initial reaction to Jack Collins was to invite him in and offer him half of her dinner. How many of us could be that unwary, that generous? Then add Jenny’s past to the equation, and we see a rare young woman who has reached some sort of acceptance about what happened to her. Here she is with Jack Collins:

There’s no anger in you, is there, Jenny? None at all. I don’t understand that.”

“Who would you have me be angry with?”

“Your parents?”

“I never knew them.”

“The man who abducted you.”

“Danny? He was just being true to what he was, being Danny. He couldn’t help himself. And that was many and many a year ago–“

“In a kingdom by the sea.”

“Exactly. There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.”

“Society, then–for allowing this to happen.”

“Way too big a bag to haul around, on such a short trip.”

According to Jenny, Jack wants answers and everything black and white.

“You want it all to make sense, don’t you?” I said. “Our lives, the world. Clear reasons. Explanations. Even when you know better than most how untidy the world and all our lives are.”

What makes some people survive and others crumble with despair? To Jenny, it’s a decision. As she tells Cheryl:

At some point, we realize that it’s not just going to happen, that we’re going to have to make the decision to become human and out some effort into it. Most start young as a matter of course. Others, people like you and me, we have good reason for being late starters. But the struggle’s the same. We work at making a self for most of a lifetime. only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.

At 128 pages, Others of My Kind is a novella which explores isolation and includes some big questions and covers some disturbing territory. This is a not a traditional story, and instead Sallis opts for an unusual narrative trajectory which as the story winds down, swallows up the passage of time in just a few pages. For this reader, the strength of the novella is rooted in Jenny’s character, her damage and her strength. As Jenny’s life expands beyond herself and Cheryl, the novella lost some momentum even as time sped up, and the story shifted from an intensely interesting character study to something, for this reader, slightly less successful and much more allegorical in meaning.

One problem I had with the book is a minor point, but one which niggled nonetheless. Jenny is introduced almost immediately as a vegetarian but then shortly thereafter, she’s eating salmon.

Review copy

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18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sallis James

18 responses to “Others of My Kind by James Sallis

  1. While I loved the movie Drive, I was only slightly impressed with the book. I’ve not read any more of James Sallis’s books yet. I probably will, and I think there will probably be more movies made from them, too.

    • I loved Drive (the book) and The Killer is Dying, so I want to dip into the author’s backlist. I have a feeling that this one may make it to Hollywood but in slightly toned down version (Jenny’s ‘acceptance’ of her attacker)

  2. I am looking forward to reading my first James Sallis book (yes, it will be Drive, as that’s had the most publicity). But this one looks very interesting, perhaps more my style than the action one.

    • Drive is/was phenomenal–an entirely different type of book from this one. I labeled Others of My Kind as ‘crime’ but it’s more the fallout from crime than anything else.

  3. This almost sounds a bit too short for the issues and characters that it deals with. The character of Jenny sound very well crafted and as you allude to a little out of the box.

    I have known several folks who call themselves vegetarians, vegans, etc. who do not even come close to following the dietary rules that they claim to aspire to, maybe Sallis is trying to say something about that.

    • I’m vegan, and people try to ply me with chicken and fish because they think that well, that isn’t red meat, so it should be ok, The terms vegan ad vegetarian have somehow or another become hijacked. No idea how that happened, so I wanted to clarify.

  4. It’s interesting how some people manage to let the most awful things behind them while others will never be able to.
    I’d like to read this. It sounds very different from Drive but I would like it.
    I know many people who call themselves vegetarians and eat fish.

  5. Sallis is a fascinating writer. I’m glad to see him getting more coverage. I have two of his unread so won’t get this yet, but it goes on the list.

    I’m with Brian, I’ve known several “vegetarians” who happily ate fish, and even I think one who ate chicken. That said, I haven’t encountered anything like that in a little while.

  6. Oops, missed your response to Brian and Caroline’s comment. That’s what I get for leaving windows open.

  7. Max & Caroline: Yes I know vegetarians/vegans too who eat items that are not on the menu. As a consequence, I have been told by restaurants that yes their advertised vegan dishes include chicken, fish etc and what of it. It’s almost as if fish and chicken have somehow become part of the so-called vegetarian/vegan diet. I don’t understand it, but I suppose like everything else, the meaning of vegetarianism/veganism has been hijacked and corrupted.

    I rarely eat out as I get sick and tired of picking off cheese or friggin’ bacon bits off food.

    This is a totally different book from Drive as you no doubt guessed. I think it’s the first time Sallis has created a female protagonist, but I could be wrong about that.

    • What people do and say in order to appease their conscience is one thing but restaurant’s should stick to “rules”.
      Eating out as a vegan must be a nightmare. I don’t know any restaurants here who do food for vegans. Vegetarians, yes but often that means you get dull food. Just veggies and plain rice.
      I know vegetarians who apply the “no eyes rule”. They eat sea food but no fish as they have eyes.

      • Well it’s funny when restaurants argue about what being a vegetarian/vegan means. Not that I bother. I don’t expect people to cater to me, but when they advertise…well it’s annoying.

  8. I still have Drive on the TBR, so it’s going to be this one first.
    However, this one is interesting as it explores our resilience and apparently Jenny made peace with her past without religious help.

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  10. Many thanks for the review — and for the comments. All are greatly appreciated.

  11. Pingback: memory will cut you off at the knees if you let it | Pechorin's Journal

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