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James Sallis Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Helena, Arkansas, 1944. Education: Attended Tulane University, 1962-64. Career: Former college instructor, publisher's reader, and magazine editor. Agent: c/o Meredith Bernstein, 470 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Long-Legged Fly: A Novel. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1992.

Moth. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1993.

Black Hornet. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1994.

Renderings: A Novel. Black Heron Press, 1996.

Death Will Have Your Eyes: A Novel About Spies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Eye of the Cricket: A Lew Griffin Novel. New York, Walker, 1997.

Bluebottle: A Lew Griffin Novel. New York, Walker, 1999.

Short Stories

A Few Last Words. London, Hart-Davis, 1969; New York, Macmillan, 1970.

Limits of the Sensible World. Host Publications, 1995.

Poetry

Sorrow's Kitchen: Poems. East Lansing, Michigan State UniversityPress, 2000.

Other

Down Home: Country-Western. New York, Macmillan, 1971.

The Guitar Players: One Instrument and Its Masters in American Music. New York, Morrow, 1982.

Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes. Brooklyn, New York, Gryphon, 1993.

Introduction, A Case of Rape by Chester Himes. New York, Carroll &Graf, 1994.

Gently into the Land of the Meateaters (essays). Seattle, Washington, Black Heron Press, 2000.

Editor, The War Book. New York, Dell, 1971.

Editor, The Shores Beneath. New York, Avon, 1971.

Editor, Jazz Guitars: An Anthology. New York, Morrow, 1984.

Editor, Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delaney. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Editor, The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology. Lincoln, University ofNebraska Press, 1996.

Translator, Saint Glinglin by Raymond Queneau. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.

* * *

The novels of James Sallis exhibit the strong influence of the French New Novelists, who fashion structurally complex existential investigations, often using the methods and motifs of mere potboilers, a project Sallis himself has undertaken. While Sallis's own characters have more in common with the ambivalent ponderers of Michel Butor than with the dispassionate, depersonalized observers of Robbe-Grillet, Sallis shares both authors' preoccupations with changing perceptions and portrayals of time. But a larger shadow is cast across Sallis's novels by Camus's L'Etranger. Indeed, Camus's masterpiece is at least mentioned in each of Sallis's novels. With its depiction of the absurdity of the human condition through the context of the actions of a single, supremely alienated individual, L'Etranger can be seen as the ur-text against which all of Sallis's novels were anxiously created.

Sallis's novels share other anxious characteristics as well. In each, wounded male narrators relate their experiences in prose that is not so much allusive as it is full of direct references to other writers and their work. Such compulsive quoting can be seen as an appropriation of artistic authenticity that comes mostly from French literature, although Dostoevsky is also frequently mentioned, a fitting reference point for an author whose protagonists are mired in existential uneasiness.

But these references may also signal Sallis's attempt to create consciously-literate characters who apply their readings to their circumstances in ways that lend relevance to situations that are often bleak and even nihilistically shorn of meaning.

If neither of these interpretations is particularly insightful, nor are they mutually exclusive of each other, it may explain Sallis's curious place on the map of contemporary American letters. He is well regarded among aficionados of hard-boiled entertainments, who often review him in glowing terms that rank him with Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene. However, he has largely been ignored by academic critics, despite his prolific output, which includes short stories, poems, jazz criticism, a translation of a novel by Raymond Queneau, and a biography of Chester Himes.

Sallis's best-known works are a series of detective novels set in New Orleans. They feature Lew Griffin, an African-American amateur detective who, besides being an intermittently functioning alcoholic, is also a sometime teacher and novelist. In The Long-Legged Fly, the first and least formulaic novel of the series, the narrative opens with Griffin committing a murder that is only obliquely referred to again, which helps explain the pervasive sense of guilt that dogs Griffin throughout the subsequent three decades this short novel encompasses, detailing Griffin's handling of several missing-person's cases as well as his own swiftly changing fortunes.

Sallis's mysteries do not reach conclusions so much as merely end, confirming their narrators' forgone conclusions of absurdity by ending in ways that indict the very structures of the narratives they conclude. In this way, Sallis strives to subvert the contrived conventions of the genre, and of narrative literature itself, making of them emblems for much larger contrivances, such as assumptions about the redemptive nature of love or the purpose of life. In Moth, Griffin searches for the lost daughter of his long-time, now-deceased lover, a reformed prostitute who had married another man and spent the rest of her life doing social work. When Griffin finally locates this daughter, he helps her recover from drug addiction only to have her willfully run away again.

However, such attempted subversions are not always successful, often coming off as abrupt abandonments rather than earned realizations of futility. Sallis often employs a kind of deus ex machina ending in his novels, though his use of this device undermines structure rather than being an affirmation of meaning imparted from above. In Black Hornet, Lew Griffin's quest to find a sniper who has targeted white citizens of New Orleans ends when Griffin is literally told the address of the sniper by an acquaintance who has known the criminal's identity all along. When Griffin confronts the sniper, the criminal dies without revealing his identity while Griffin is credited with avenging the sniper's victims, though, in truth, the sniper's death was an accident and his reasons for killing have died with him. The mystery has ended, but it has not been solved.

Renderings is Sallis's only non-genre novel, the story of a writer who travels to a remote island to live in a settlement for some unspecified purpose, though he alludes to his trip being an "expedition" for which he is compiling a "report" that is ostensibly the novel itself. With its first-person, ruminative and highly provocative narration, Renderings invites comparisons with Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; but Renderings has a tighter, almost microscopic focus, and its narrator's ruminations are less overtly topical. As this narrator revisits his past, which consists mostly of failed relationships with women, he does ruminate on such subjects as writing, the difference between the lyrical and narrative modes, and the novels of Dostoevsky. But the real subject of his thoughts is the struggle between past failures and present circumstances. Surreal details, such as people with animal heads, intrude on the narrative, highlighting its subjectivity by blurring the lines between experience and imagination. Indeed, this novel asks how much of experience is imagination, and its answer is solipsistic in the extreme. The narrator realizes that the essential alienation of individuals is insurmountable; spurred by some past trauma that may or may not have been the suicide of a lover, this man concludes that, while connection is impossible, we are compelled to try to communicate with one another. Hence, he writes, because we are "unable to acknowledge silence." Thus, love, or our perception of love, is merely a coping mechanism with which we distract ourselves from the inevitable silence of impending death.

By the last half of Renderings, the narrator has embraced his solipsism, so that it becomes unclear whether or not the woman he has met at the settlement, and who has become his lover, is a real person, perhaps a fellow patient. She may instead be a ghost, or a figment of his imagination. Throughout the narrative, the sea has emerged as a symbol of the infinite unknowable, and the book ends with the narrator staring out at it, with his lover by his side, "waiting for the end of the world." The novel seems to argue for an absurdity whose only obviation is through art, seemingly a central tenet of all of Sallis's fiction, but Renderings is troubling for not being particularly artistic. Rather, it is a rhetorical novel making an artistic argument, mustering the words of other writers as evidence without creating anything remotely sublime on its own.

In Death Will Have Your Eyes, Sallis creates a spy novel, incorporating the conventions of espionage tales to his central motif of a man coping with his dark past. David, a successful sculptor who was once a government assassin, is pressed back into service when one of his former colleagues begins committing murders whose purpose is unknown. Again, Sallis creates a super-literate protagonist whose ruminations take on existential connotations. And, as the episodes of the novel unfold in ways that both conform and then subvert the conventions of the spy genre as practiced by Ian Fleming and John le Carre, Sallis comes closer than in Renderings to the manifestation of his aesthetic that life is a nihilistic jumble that is best dealt with through creativity. David survives his final mission to again become, with the aid of his beautiful Gabrielle, a successful artist. It is not a particularly penetrating conclusion; it is a contrivance. But Sallis's hero knows it is, and that, it seems, makes all the difference. Like the condemned Meursault, David rejects the idea that his actions can be justified, therein finding the freedom, even at the moment of possible execution, to indulge them.

—J.J. Wylie

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