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James Sallis: A Writer at the Edge
Richard Martin


'Surely we dream the world and ourselves into it. But to say that the world is illusion is not to say that it is not real, only that it is not what it seems (and who ever believed that it was?), that it is constantly becoming, constantly being made.' So writes James Sallis in Renderings, his remarkable fusion of poetry, short-fiction and the avant-garde novel. Such insight and concision is typical of Sallis's work, which in so many ways overlaps with, alludes to and takes as a point of departure that of other members of the twentieth-century literary pantheon. Joyce, Borges, Queneau, Pynchon, Moorcock, Cortázar, DeLillo; all are sources of inspiration, kindred spirits, fellow pioneers for this man of letters, who, for some thirty years, has remained faithful to a personal, essentially modernist, literary vision. High art and popular culture. Literary modernism and genre fiction. Time's passage and its recording both by human memory and culture. Language as a referential system. The power and meaninglessness of the word, the image, the sign. These and so many other themes and motifs – bibliophilia, entropy, arachnology, musicology, ethnology – are ingredients in Sallis's literary soup. 'It was always arcane knowledge that we pursued; you know that now. Early fascination with science had given way to passions for magic and conjuring, astrology, religion, contemporary poetry in several languages, quantum theory, the New Novel, Buddhism, obscure musics, obscure heroes.'

Best known for a six-volume crime fiction series – The Long-Legged Fly, Moth, Black Hornet, Eye of the Cricket, Bluebottle and Ghost of a Flea – featuring the African-American detective Lew Griffin, Sallis is a writer of many talents, applying himself with equal skill and accomplishment as a novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, translator (he was responsible for a much-acclaimed adaptation of Queneau's Saint Glinglin), musicologist, biographer and book reviewer-cum-critic. He is also an author who is drawn to literature 'at the edge' – fiction and poetry that borrows from disparate influences, pushing the boundaries of style, form and genre.

In the 1960s, this was the realm of fantasy and science fiction. Sallis was there in the vanguard of the genre's short story writers, also working in an editorial capacity with Michael Moorcock on the celebrated sci-fi journal New Worlds. In the 1990s, it was the realm of the revitalised genre of hardboiled crime fiction. Again, Sallis was there managing to break down those artificial distinctions between 'literature' and genre fiction, expanding the horizons of the crime novel and short story while remaining faithful to their traditions. In his hands, the genre has become the perfect vehicle for the formal experimentation, meditations on time and identity and treatises on our collective culture that typify modern/ist art. That he manages to package such motifs in well-structured, moving and entertaining novels is a unique accomplishment. That this singular vision has also been applied to the world of fantasy and science fiction (A Few Last Words), the spy novel (Death Will Have Her Eyes), the serial killer novel (Machiavelli's Angel) and the avant-garde, 'literary' novella (Renderings), as well as countless poems and essays, is worthy of applause. 'Feet firmly in both camps, I work towards the day when "literary" writers will come to realize what energy they forego in setting themselves apart and when "genre" writers will stop retreating defensively behind fictive walls. Literature is not some imposing sideboard with discrete drawers labeled poetry, mystery, serious novel, science fiction – but a long buffet table laid out with all manner of fine, diverse foods. You go back and forth, take whatever you want or need.'

James Sallis was born in 1944 and spent his childhood in Helena, Arkansas, a rural town on the banks of the Mississippi River. His formative years, succinctly outlined in his essay Gone So Long, saw him develop a passion for all forms of literature, as well as the music of the South, especially the blues and jazz he was exposed to on the local radio station. Studies at Tulane segued into a life as a writer, although the financial pitfalls of such a career path have also forced him to work as a creative writing teacher, respiratory therapist, musician, music teacher, screenwriter and periodical editor. There were also extensive periods of travel, with Sallis spending portions of his life as a resident of London, New York City, Boston, Phoenix and Paris, among other cities, although New Orleans will forever be his spiritual home. A natural linguist, Sallis also dedicated time to the acquisition of foreign languages, notably French and Russian, although he also has had enough skill and application to translate Spanish and Polish literary works into English. As with so many great writers, his is a biography that has been marked by life lessons, often of the harshest kind – poverty, homelessness, bereavement.

Such experiences inform our understanding of Sallis's texts, adding to their heady mix of generic tradition, formal experimentation, literary allusionism, philosophical musings and autobiographical reminiscence. In the 1990s, Sallis has emerged as an important voice, whose burgeoning literary output will carry the traditions embodied by his own literary heroes, such as Pynchon, Queneau, Cervantes and Himes, well into the 21st century. The new millennium started with a collection of essays, a volume of short stories, two poetry collections, a biography of Chester Himes and the final installment of the Griffin saga, with the promise of so much more to follow…


Richard Martin is the author of Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: the legacy of film noir in contemporary American cinema. Formerly a freelance writer and editor, he now works as a web developer. He maintains The James Sallis Web Pages in collaboration with Jim Sallis.


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