James Sallis has carved a niche for himself as a literary novelist with the ability to cross over to genre writing, especially mysteries. His books work consistently as entertainment, yet are filled with word play and complex characters that even the most sophisticated reader can appreciate. A lifelong lover of music, Sallis writes with a spontaneous and inventive style similar to the playing styles of his favorite jazz and blues musicians. His plots are minimal and his stories are almost always told in nonlinear form. It seems clear that Sallis believes this to reflect the realistic, if meandering, course of actual life. Sallis’s essay “Where I Live,” from the collection Gently into the Land of the Meateaters (2000), expresses the writer’s attitude perfectly. He is little interested in plot and traditional forms of narration but is much more drawn toward works that have a unique voice.
Physical location also plays an exceptionally important role in Sallis’s work, especially in his two series. Both Griffin and Turner are from rural Arkansas, specifically from the Helena area, which is where Sallis grew up. Griffin flees that world for New Orleans, and it is clear from Gently into the Land of the Meateaters, especially an essay entitled “Gone So Long,” that Sallis did the same thing in leaving Helena for Tulane University. Sallis hated the casual racism and abject poverty that he saw growing up, and leaving Helena for cosmopolitan New Orleans was his way of both escaping and protesting those inequities. His Lew Griffin mysteries were certainly a way of dealing with such experiences and were best told through the point of view of an African American protagonist. It is notable that John Turner, the white protagonist of his second series, also leaves the rural South for the city—Memphis—but then returns to the same country that he once fled. Through Turner, Sallis is, at least metaphorically, returning home.
Another characteristic of Sallis’s writing is his frequent and playful use of literary and musical references. In one sentence he may reference a European poet who is obscure to most readers in the United States; in another he alludes to hard-boiled American writers such as Jim Thompson or David Goodis. He mixes quotes from blues musicians with those from country stars. This reflects the enormous range of Sallis’s reading and musical experiences and his ability to make meaningful connections between diverse lives and viewpoints.
Some critics dislike the relentless connectivity of Sallis’s work, perhaps because many of the allusions are not familiar to them. For many readers, however, the allusions create a fleeting familiarity, a feeling of near revelation, as if they have just made a connection that deepens their understanding of the world. The Lew Griffin series is particularly rich with such connections, but it reflects perfectly the character of the narrator, Griffin. Griffin is much like Sallis. He is a self-taught writer with a huge interest in music. The references come naturally to Griffin because they...
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