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James Sallis: Ghost of a Flea
Patrick Millikin

We live metaphorically, striving always to match
our lives to images we've accepted or imagined
for them – family man, middle American, true
believer, gangster – contriving these containers,
a succession of them, that preserve us, define us,
that keep us from spilling out and give us shape,
but rarely fit.
                                               — Eye of the Cricket

 

In an era of consumerism, immediate gratification and almost surreal banality – a time in which sports figures, talk show hosts and supermodels have become our cultural icons – the mere existence of a writer like James Sallis seems remarkable. A true polymath who embodies the European concept of "the man of letters," Sallis has for the last thirty years been quietly building an important and diverse body of work. Though perhaps best known for his existentialist "crime" novels featuring New Orleans detective/novelist/teacher Lew Griffin, Sallis has also written poetry, short stories (over 100 published at last count), essays, several books on musicology, translations and a screenplay. He also plays a mean bottleneck guitar and is a gourmet cook.

With the publication of his current project, Chester Himes: A Life, Sallis will soon add biography to his list of credentials. "Hell, how about a play?" one naturally asks: "I'd love to," chuckles the easygoing and approachable author, "but if you think the market for short stories was bad, it's virtually nonexistent for new plays." Sallis' schizophrenic tastes are well-displayed in the rows of books that line the modest Phoenix home that he and wife, Karyn, share with their beloved cat, Dragon. Paco Ignacio Taibo, Daniel Woodrell and George Pelecanos share equal shelf space with the Sturgeons, Pynchons, Becketts, Queneaus and Joyces that Sallis loves and returns to again and again. (He's recently undergone a major Nabokov re-reading binge and has also devoured Leon Edel's massive multi-volume biography of Henry James).

Born in Helena, Arkansas in 1944, Sallis is largely an autodidact (as is his protagonist Lew Griffin) whose desire to write was fueled at an early age by his voracious reading habits: "Helena is like almost any other small Southern town: incredibly parochial and ingrown, like those towns in science fiction movies that have been uprooted and removed from the rest of mankind. You try to get out and can't, everything just stops there at the edge. For the most part, at least from the age of ten or so, my childhood was largely spent reading. I began on my brother's [philosopher and writer, John Sallis] books, then raided the town library (he went with me to be sure they wouldn't give me any trouble about checking out adult books), then started amassing my own. Probably should have stopped at step two." It was during these early years (about the fourth grade) that Sallis made his own first attempts at writing: "I always thought I might do something else as well – first science, later music – but writing was always going to be a big part of my life. Turned out that was the only thing I was really good at. I love a passage in Chandler's letters where he says that he could have been a second-rate anything, but had the makings of a first-class writer." Sallis is also fond of recalling his old friend [guitarist/songwriter] Chris Smither's refusal to learn a trade to fall back upon for fear that he'd indeed fall back upon it when hard times hit.

Poetry was Sallis' first love as a child and, though he's loath to distinguish one kind of writing from another, he remembers that his initial ambition was to be a poet: "Well, I grew up awash in T. S. Eliot and the like. At school I read Frost, Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay. The first major poetic infatuation I remember was Edna St. Vincent Millay want to hear some? I loved Wilde's verse, and some time in senior high my brother introduced me to e. e. cummings. He'd bring books home to me from college, and one time it was cummings' 50 poems. In college I fell strongly for Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Then found my way about the same time towards French poetry – Baudelaire and Rimbaud first, and contemporary American poets such as Robert Creeley and W. S. Merwin. So you'll see all sorts of strands swimming around like spermatazoa in my poems. Hey, wasn't that Guillevic that just swam by?! I also studied Russian for several years just to read Russian poets." Languages have been another of Sallis' passions over the years. He has translated poetry from the Polish and five years ago published a masterful translation of Raymond Queneau's Saint Glinglin (Dalkey Archive Press, 1993).

The young Sallis escaped from the confines of Helena with a scholarship to Tulane, and thus became acquainted with the city that remains closest to his heart: New Orleans. With its cosmopolitan mixture of cultures, rich musical heritage and teeming energy (including its crime and corruption) the city is spiritual home to many writers and artists, and has proven over the years to have a magnetic draw for the ever-wandering Sallis. "I remember when my brother and some friends were visiting the city for the first time recently; they were surprised to see that it didn't look like a quaint little French village. People tend to not realize that there's more of a colonial, Mediterranean influence than a direct French influence. Actually, in some ways it's more Spanish because it was a Spanish colony for many years. For this reason it has a social structure totally unlike any other city in the country. Everything's all jumbled up. Rather than being isolated in suburbia, living among a narrow section of society, you can't escape being exposed to all parts of the city. On the way out to the theater or opera, you'll drive through the absolute worst parts of town. I love that." Sallis lived in New Orleans for several years, then studied briefly at the University of Iowa before dropping out to continue writing on his own, while simultaneously "trying to empty the city of its beer."

Sallis had by this time been writing for a number of years and had grown weary of the academic "well-made story" in which there were definite rules one adhered to: the character had to undergo a proscribed arc, had to have a cute little "epiphany" at the right moment, had to emerge a wiser person, blah blah. When I ask him if he went through a process that many writers face of "unlearning" all that he was taught, Sallis' replies: "I don't know if it was so much shedding academic dead skin as it was growing a lot of new skin: learning about European and world literatures, discovering French, continuing to read science fiction and branching out into a love of other genre writing. You wanta play the big leagues, you gotta bulk up (bet you never expected a sports metaphor from me!). Besides, I've always been headstrong, insisting upon my own way even if it was the wrong one, and of course quite often it was."

When Sallis met Michael Moorcock in the mid-Sixties at a writer's conference it turned out to be a pivotal point in his career. Moorcock had already purchased one of Sallis' stories for New Worlds, a London-based science fiction magazine, and when he invited Sallis to come to England to take a stab at being the magazine's fiction editor the young writer jumped at the chance. "I was scared to death," Sallis reflects with a laugh. "Here I was, twenty one years old and had no idea what I was doing." Exciting things were happening in London and Sallis found himself at the center of what would be recognized as one of science fiction's most creative and innovative eras: J. G. Ballard was publishing his first stories, as were D. M. Thomas, Christopher Priest and Tom Disch, among others. One of Sallis' early coups at New Worlds was the publication of Harlan Ellison's story, "The Boy and His Dog".

While in England, Sallis continued to write and publish the surrealistic short stories (there's even one entitled "The Anxiety in the Eyes of the Cricket," a title destined to resurface twenty-five years later) that would ultimately be collected in his first book, A Few Last Words (Macmillan, 1970). Copies of this book (featuring a photo of a very intense-looking young Sallis) are quite scarce and the author likes to recall the time at a recent book signing when a trench coat-clad man looked around nervously before producing a mint copy from inside his coat.

Sallis was instrumental in transforming New Worlds into an avant-garde and experimental literary magazine. After several years, however, the magazine went belly up and Sallis found himself back in the States and unemployed. He wandered around the country for awhile, living briefly in Milford, PA, New York and Boston before returning finally to New Orleans. He continued to write short stories, but was faced with shrinking opportunities with the collapse of the short story market. To survive, Sallis turned his attention to his other love, music. Classically trained in French horn as a child, Sallis had also taught himself how to play the guitar and while growing up became obsessed with blues, jazz and all kinds of ethnic musics. At that time, he is quick to maintain, many of the Delta blues masters that we've all heard of and take for granted today were virtually unknown, their records prized among a select group of connoisseurs. Not only was the music itself difficult to find, but there was a real dearth of written material about the musicians Sallis loved: Robert, Lonnie and Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, among others. So, Sallis decided to write about them himself.

Reading Sallis' work as a whole, one of the main themes that recur is the underlying unity of different art forms. In the introduction to his first book of musicology, The Guitar Players (Morrow, 1980; University of Nebraska, 1994, rev. ed.), Sallis points out that "one cannot speak of the guitar in isolation, outside of its historical and musical contexts. Neither I think can one make jazz, country music, pop and blues antithetical or discriminatory. They are not separate destinations but different roads taken." Although he is writing about music, the same all-encompassing approach forms the basis of Sallis' views about literature and art.

The Guitar Players was followed by Jazz Guitars (Morrow, 1984), then, more recently, by a collection of pieces introduced and edited by Sallis entitled The Guitar in Jazz (University of Nebraksa, 1996), which contains essays on Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass and Eddie Lang,among others, and features a striking cover photograph of a nineteen-year-old Charlie Christian (who would go on to revolutionize the guitar as a lead instrument). Along the roadside of Sallis' past are a partially-completed history of Country music and an abandoned biography of Lonnie Johnson.

During the late-Seventies and early-Eighties Sallis also spent a good deal of time as a professional musician himself, giving guitar lessons and accompanying local bands on guitar, mandolin, dobro, steel guitar and banjo. Although he has nowhere near the collection of instruments that he once had, Sallis still has at least four guitars (six and twelve-string acoustics, a battered old Guild hollow-body electric and a Telecaster), an old multi-neck National steel as well as a brand new green sunburst mandolin (which he swears plays haunting Irish reels by itself when nobody is in the room).

Indeed, Sallis' lifelong love of music is at the core of everything he writes [he dedicates The Guitar in Jazz to "To all the musicians. One does not want to think of a world without them."]. This is especially true of his Lew Griffin novels, through which the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell float and mingle together with their literary brethren – Himes, Chandler, Beckett and others. With these wonderful novels Sallis has also perfected his musical and improvisational style. Abandoning the straightforward linear style that is characteristic of much modern fiction (and almost all detective fiction), Sallis writes in much the same manner as a blues or jazz musician plays, taking a theme and comping around, improvising, exploring, turning a phrase inside out to get at its heart. He consistently makes the point in his fiction that our lives really have no plot; that tidy resolutions only occur in books (though certainly not his!) and movies, but seldom happen in real life: "We all make up our lives by bits and pieces, a piece of a book here, a song title or lyric there, scraps of people we've known, clips from movies, imagining our selves and living into that image, then going on to another and yet another, improvising our way from day to day through the years we call a life," states the narrator in The Long-Legged Fly.

Sallis has stated that he originally began the Lew Griffin books with the intention of writing the kind of book that he wanted to read but could never find; a book that would combine the atmosphere, muscularity and energy of the best crime novels with the stylistic freedom and complexity that good "Literature" (though he is quick to say that nobody really knows what the hell that term means) has. His particular hybrid contains elements of the European writers that he so admires (Beckett's ghost particularly haunts the novels; the Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable trilogy is one of Sallis' bibles) mixed with the influence of pulp writers such as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and, of course, Chester Himes.

Sallis recounts that his first exposure to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose entire works he gulped down in several days while in London, changed his life. He talks about different types of books satisfying "specific hungers" that we all as readers crave, and Chandler and Hammett instilled a craving for crime fiction that has continued to this day. He soon discovered Chester Himes, who was popular in France at that time but all but forgotten in the States: "I first discovered Chester just after returning from England. The first books I read were the original 35-cent paperbacks, which Damon Knight had in his library at the Anchorage in Milford, where I was living with my then-wife and Tom Disch." One of those early Himes books was The Primitive, a book that has remained very dear to Sallis' heart: "For years I'd pick up used copies and give them to friends because they were so hard to get."

Finally, thanks to Payback Press in Scotland (who've published an excellent series of little known black writers such as Clarence Cooper, Robert Deane Pharr and Nathan Heard), Himes' novel is back in print, with the original title, The End of a Primitive, intact. Payback Press has also commissioned the Himes biography on which Sallis is hard at work. In fact, he recently returned from a trip to San Francisco to meet Chester Himes' widow, Lesley, who was on a rare visit from Spain.

Although he's written about Himes and other pulp novelists at length over the years, Sallis gets a kick out of the almost begrudging acceptance that academia has recently given crime fiction: "Frankly, Jim Thompson's being accepted by the academy makes me blow milk out my nose. I wish Jim and the rest of them the best of luck in never getting accepted by the academy. One of the great horrors of America is that it makes sincere difference-taking or protest virtually impossible. The commercial culture just co-opts those impulses wherever they pop up, holds them down and tickles until they give up and join. Thompson and all these guys – and I definitely include Himes! – are great because they adamantly will not join. There was a narrow band of time when the pulps were first coming in when the demand was so high that these writers were assured of getting paid if they could come up with 60,000 words. There were really no rules yet, and so you had these guys like Jim Thompson and David Goodis who were more or less pursuing their own personal demons. At their best they are so subversive you can't even pick them up, they drip between your fingers."

Chester Himes' life, rather than his work itself, influenced the initial creation of Lew Griffin ("his passivity; his sudden bursts of rage; his nearly exclusive preference for white women") but, as Sallis says, the more he writes about Griffin the more the character has taken on a life of his own: "Lew's now his own person, not likely to be much influenced by what I think of Chester, maybe not likely to be influenced by what I think at all."

One of the main characteristics of the Griffin novels is an almost self-negating quality (which is again the influence of Beckett and Queneau, et al). Sallis intentionally blurs the relationship between Jim Sallis the author, Lew Griffin the narrator and Lew Griffin the protagonist. As readers we are never sure if (A) Lew Griffin is indeed the narrator of these books, (B) Lew Griffin is the author of the books he writes, or (C) Lew Griffin exists at all! Sallis is quick to reply that any and all interpretations are valid and he is pleased when a reader discovers a new twist: "I'm constantly making the point that Art is artifice, and that all of the reversals that are made in the books are play; it's up to the reader to determine what is real."

Naturally, many critics and traditional mystery fans don't quite know what to make of Sallis' work (Kirkus called him "the poster boy for the irresolute ending"). The books certainly don't offer themselves as comfortable little packages; they tend to jar the senses, make us question all of the assumptions we hold to be true, make us think. A main complaint of the critics is that the books are so saturated with literary (and musical) allusions: "Most," Sallis laughs, "are only getting about ten or twenty percent of them. Lew is an autodidact. Books are an extremely important part of his life. It is natural for him to think in terms of the books that he reads. Like all of us, the books that he reads shape his world."

Finally, when asked if the journey that Lew Griffin makes throughout the course of the books, a process of "elevating himself by his bootstraps and becoming a human being" as Sallis puts it, is similar to the journey that he himself has made, the answer is revealing: "I think we all go through that journey – that's what  living is about, if taken at all seriously. We start as tadpoles and we either decide to try to become really neat frogs, or we end up just bigger tadpoles."

 

First published in Yourflesh Quarterly 41 (1999).

Enquiries should be sent to Patrick Millikin at patrick@poisonedpen.com.

 

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