Category Archives: Sallis James

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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2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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Drive by James Sallis

“Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.”

A few months ago I read The Killer is Dying from American author James Sallis. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to this writer, so here I am listening to the throbbing, hypnotic soundtrack of Drive from the recently-released film and writing a review of Sallis’s phenomenal crime novel Drive. While this is my favourite crime novel of the year, Drive is so well-written, it transcends genre, so if you’re a crime fan, waste no time–do yourself a favour and get this book. I loved it.

At 158 pages, Drive is lean and mean, yet at the same time it feels as though it’s a lot longer novel. Not sure how Sallis achieves this but the author’s use of the passage of time and the almost mythological stature of its protagonist, a young man known simply as Driver, contribute to the book’s substance.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

Sallis drops us right into the tale–chaos, blood, death and some kind of deal that’s gone wrong, and from this point the novel goes back and forth in time leading up to the scene in the cheap motel room and beyond.

Driver is a young man with a past seeped in crime and violence who arrives in Hollywood at age 16 hoping to become a stunt driver. A steady worker with extraordinary talent who gets the job done every time, Driver soon becomes a name in the business, but he also has a sideline: he’s a wheelman, and as he explains to someone who wants to hire him, there are limitations to the jobs he takes on:

I drive. That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons, I drive.

Driver’s fees are high which takes him out of the low-life league, but his rep ensures that some are willing to pay the price. Driver always picks his own vehicles “something that would fall into the background,” with a “preference for older Buicks, mid-range, some brown or gray,” but since he’s only in charge of the driving part of the heist, there’s a lot that can go wrong:

Things go wrong on a job, sometimes it starts so subtly you don’t see it at first. Other times, it’s all dominoes and fireworks.

As the novel goes back and forth in time, we pick up slivers from Driver’s past–the friends he made, the jobs that went wrong, the Hollywood stunts, and the anonymous rootless life he leads:

He existed a step or two to one side of the common world, largely out of sight, a shadow, all but invisible. Whatever he owned, either he could hoist it on his back and lug it along or he could walk away from it. Anonymity was the thing he loved most about the city, being a part of it and apart from it at the same time. He favoured older apartment complexes where parking lots were cracked and stained with oil, where when the guy a few doors down played his music too loud you weren’t about to complain, where frequently tenants loaded up in the middle of the night and rode off never to be heard from again. Even cops didn’t like coming into such places.

A large portion of the book follows Driver as we found him in the first chapter, injured, surrounded by stiffs and wondering just who sold him out. It may not be personal, but Driver’s enemies want him dead, and they make the mistake of severely underestimating him….

By leaving Driver as a largely undefined character (except for his phenomenal driving ability), Sallis creates an intriguing, enigmatic anti-hero. Just what Driver is capable of becomes evident as this extraordinary neo-noir novel plays out, and while it’s clear that Driver’s actions become a response to circumstances, it’s also obvious that Driver isn’t the sort of man who leaves loose ends. He just doesn’t think that way. Once again, wordmaster Sallis wastes no words, and while the story is lean, it’s haunting and will dig in under your skin.

But what he did best, what he did better than just about anyone else was, he drove. 

For anyone interested, here’s a film trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAc23x2JJG0

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The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest,  The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.

Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like  Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:

How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.

None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.

Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t.  To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost”  who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on? 

Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:

Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?

We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:

What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.

These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen,  physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.

The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.

A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:

He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.

And again:

A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of  local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.

Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages.  Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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