October 31, 2020
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The Shape of Life: On James Sallis’s “Sarah Jane”

JAMES SALLIS DELINEATES the worlds of his characters through his laconic and vivid writing: he brings to the plain language of noir a literary sensibility, with striking prose and frequent literary references that are never obtrusive. He never condescends to genre fiction — in fact, his last novel, Willnot, published in 2016, is in large part an homage to science fiction writers of the 1950s. Sallis is the author of 18 novels, including Drive (adapted for film in 2011 by director Nicolas Winding Refn) and a highly regarded series set in New Orleans, featuring private investigator Lew Griffin. He demonstrates across all his work a deep respect and acknowledgment of the “dailyness,” to use Sallis’s own term, that is a vital element of noir realism. But he also recognizes that a straightforward story is not how we live our lives.
Sarah Jane, his remarkable new novel, is about a woman who finds her place in the world but can’t escape her past, in a story that demonstrates deep empathy for both central and incidental characters. Sarah (as she is called for most of the book) says in the first pages that her story is the journal she began keeping at the age of seven, but she hints at the darker strain of the narrative in the seventh paragraph: “I didn’t do all those things they say I did. Well, not all of them anyway.” At first, the story seems to be a perfect rural noir (along the spectrum from Jim Thompson to Daniel Woodrell), but the novel quickly blossoms into a much broader and deeper exploration of small towns and the stories that meander and intertwine in them. Sarah grew up in a variety of hardscrabble places — her father’s chicken farm, for example, where she saw her father administer some private justice, telling Sarah, “We’re from good hillbilly stock […] We don’t call police.” By the last two-thirds of the book, she has moved to the town of Farr, where she ends up being the acting sheriff. Along the way, she repeatedly returns to the skill she learned during the time she lived in a squatters’ camp just outside a college town: cooking, as a way to make a living and sometimes a means of finding her way, becomes the thread that connects her journey through the semi-rural Midwest.
From the very first pages, the narrator moves quickly through events that would provide enough material for several novels: her mother repeatedly abandoning a family sinking into despair, then a passage in an almost cult-like group of college students and hangers-on, in which a crime occurs that, even though she is only on the fringes of it, lands Sarah in front of a judge who gives her a choice between the military or jail. Her choice, the military, gives her a new discipline but also leads to a disastrous mission in a desert war, and two deaths that will haunt her when she returns home. Sallis will loop back to these events, in a plot that never unfolds in a straight line. As she explains, regarding her narrative and her investigation of the missing sheriff whom she replaced, “Points on a line can never approach the experience itself.”
As Sarah moves from place to place, Sallis sketches vivid glimpses of events: she explains her close attention to these details, saying,
The days march by and extraordinary things happen all around us. Small miracles, haphazard events, bursts of joy, revelations. An old man painfully gets to his knees to stroke the dying cat he found on his patio. A shy child hears live music for the first time and dances. Thousands of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains blink their tail lights every one at the same time. We hunker down in our daily lives, in the shelter of routines and assumptions. We miss so much.
She wanders (and sometimes flees) across the middle of the country, going from a marriage to a vigilante cop (whose actions mimic her father’s own extralegal hillbilly justice) to an affair with Yves, the “Gentlest Man Alive.” She also enrolls in college, where she meets a sort of mentor in the English department who gives her some of the “store of quotes and misquotes I’ve lugged around like a cotton picker’s sack the rest of my life,” literary references that pepper her narrative.
About a third of the way into the book, Sarah announces, “Here’s where the story begins.” Sallis is playing with expectations of the shape of conventional crime fiction, which this book both is and is not (and “shape” is an important word in the book). Much has already happened in the first third of the book, but now Sarah’s story begins to take on a more specific shape, focused on her surprising turn from former soldier, short-order cook, and drifter, to small-town cop. The plot shifts from a focus on her own previous life to an examination of the daily life of the town, through the lens of an acting sheriff whose major investigation is the disappearance of Cal Phillips. Cal is both her predecessor and mentor, and as a veteran himself, the only person who understands her reluctance to talk about the past and, in particular, her military service.
In keeping with the rest of the novel, the disappearance of the sheriff does not become a straightforward missing-person story. In fact, he returns, whether living or dead, to occasionally influence events, while Sarah supervises the search for Cal as well as many other small-town crimes and events. This pattern of overlapping smaller and larger crimes allows Sallis to present not just the dailyness of Sarah’s life and the arc of the novel’s plot, but also the lives of various townspeople whose daily lives bring them across her desk, stories that intersect with and delay the central plot, while giving Sarah the opportunity to observe the complexities and banalities of everyday life. Her narrative presents perfect vignettes of loss, violence and violence averted, and the mysteries of human choices and motivation. The story of her tenure as acting sheriff of Farr loops around on itself in an unexpected way, and ultimately provides satisfaction in the peace that Sarah finds despite her own crimes being revealed.
Sallis contrasts his story with the conventional crime stories that the narrator glimpses on other people’s TV sets as she passes by:
Tonight’s show could be about a paralyzed man, a veteran, who works as a sit-down comic at the hippest bar in town, solving mysteries in his spare time while raising a rare species of bird that will save the world from giant tomato worms by singing to them. In between, he thinks and squints a lot.
Sarah’s journey demonstrates that we live in a web of overlapping stories, some hidden from us, some we share with various people, each tale with its own past, present, and future. As Sarah says, “We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.” Sarah refers to her ability to read the hidden interior lives of those she encounters through their body language, that which
people signal beneath the facades they present[.] […] This twentyish man in cargo shorts and knock-off cross trainers, for instance, whose head seems to move independently of his body. Or how a young woman wearing a plain summer dress brings her right foot around in a slight arc. The elderly gentleman replacing his self-dialogue with a bright smile, as though a switch has been thrown, as we approach one another.
Stories there. Lives. Worlds.
Cal recognizes her through cues of the same sort, and she responds by telling him about her time in the military, as she has not done for anyone else: “‘[T]he way you approached […] looked a lot like military training.’ So I told him. Not the heavy stuff, that came later, but the dailyness, the shape of it.” Her entire seemingly shapeless, or at least meandering, narrative is in fact concerned with the “shape” we seek in our lives. Sarah speaks of feeling “a life taking shape around me.” This structuring of life is not an intellectual exercise. It is a struggle to achieve something of our own in a difficult and often hostile world.
Sallis’s characters seek this “shape” in the mosaic of stories, memories, and ideas: they also live in the same splintered time that we do, their experiences on the page encompassing the past and even the future beyond the book. The shifts are casual, conversational, offering (and, really, needing) no explanation. And there are frequent passages that capture the trivialities of life in a way that suggests that nothing is actually trivial, and without requiring any relation to the story that Sarah is telling.
Sallis seems to be speaking simply, telling a story without much shape of its own, but his ability to evoke moments of everyday life ultimately delineates powerfully the experience of a woman who matters to us, in a life that, from her own point of view, she feels “taking shape around me.” The final shape of her life is achieved gradually, step by step, in her encounters with people and events that are ordinary and extraordinary, placid and violent, particular and universal, disconnected and inextricably intertwined. Sarah Jane is not Sallis’s first female narrator: his 2013 Others of My Kind was the story of a remarkable woman’s exceptional life. Sarah Jane, though, is an extraordinary novel about a woman’s sometimes violent and ultimately insightful encounter with ordinary life.
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Glenn Harper is the former editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at internationalnoir.blogspot.com.
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