Nowadays, I pick up a book with only one question in mind: will it get me to write? That means the book not only has to entertain but inspire, not only delight but instruct. I have to put it down and immediately jump on the big black stallion of fiction—that terrifying apparition of the netherworld, glistening with foaming sweat and angry with flaring nostrils.
So, I picked James Sallis for reasons that would have never motivated me if I were reading solely for pleasure. First, a friend who had never actually read him had heard he was pretty good. Second, the book was thin. I needed a sense of accomplishment. After just reading a long book, I wanted a quick finish. In other words, I was thinking like an elementary school kid, not like the lord of the underworld on a sleek, black steed.
But James Sallis is an amazing writer—he’s a real horseman–who straddles the line between experimental and genre fiction. The story is split between a series of disjointed third person narrators—a boy abandoned by his folks; a hired killer whose victim has been offed before he could do the job; a detective, at the end of a marriage. None of these figures ever meet. But their stories intertwine in a way that is riveting.
There are many elements of conventional fiction that are missing in this semi-experimental narrative. There is really no conventional whodunit mystery. There is no linear plot. There is no interaction between major characters. What makes you keep reading is the intense voice of the narration. There is an urgency in the voice.
Writers of genre fiction are often not thought to think deeply about fiction: they are not self-reflexive—the technical term for ruminations about the nature of form, which makes its way into the story’s structure. But in Sallis, we see this is not true. Here is moment of reflection by the victim immediately after he escapes the hospital:
In early youth he’d read a lot of fiction. Novels like Treasure Island and the Tom Swift books, short stories published by the dozen in magazines back then, Redbook, Argosy, Boy’s Life. Over time it came to him that most fiction, maybe all of it, from the grandest tales to the most commonplace, was about things that were missing. Family, lovers, sustenance, peace, ideals. At the heart of all those stories were emptinesses, yearnings, hollows that couldn’t be filled—as though bereavement were hardwired into mankind.” (136 The Killer Is Dying)
You know what’s not missing from James Sallis’s story? The ring of truth, the wisdom of philosophy, the excitement of good reading. Tallyho.