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A walk on the noir side

May 21, 2006|Judith Freeman | Judith Freeman's most recent novel is "Red Water." She is working on a book about Raymond Chandler, which is to be published in 2007.

LITERATURE, James Sallis once observed, "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 what you want or need."

This is exactly what Sallis has done in a career that now spans three decades and has resulted in nearly two dozen books. He has grazed liberally across the literary buffet, mixing his interests, putting a little of this with a little of that and relishing the results. As an editor, critic, poet, essayist, translator, biographer and novelist, he has assembled some fine, diverse feasts. The question is: Why don't more people know his name? Could it be that he's viewed primarily as a mystery writer -- the literary equivalent of being from the wrong side of the tracks?

Sallis, a Southerner who now lives in Phoenix, is best known for his series of six crime novels set in New Orleans -- "The Long-Legged Fly," "Moth," "Black Hornet," "Eye of the Cricket," "Bluebottle," and "Ghost of a Flea" -- all of which feature a black detective named Lew Griffin. He finished writing the Griffin books in the late 1990s and in 2003 started a new series with the novel "Cypress Grove," set in rural Tennessee and featuring a white detective named Turner. The second Turner novel, "Cripple Creek," has just been published, and it affords an opportunity to take a look at the long career of this remarkable writer.

Sallis has published story collections, as well as volumes of poetry, essays and books on music and writing, and reviews (for this paper, among others). He translated Raymond Queneau's "Saint Glinglin" and wrote a highly praised biography of Chester Himes, one of his literary heroes. Just last year, Poisoned Pen Press issued his slim novel, "Drive," which one critic called a perfect piece of noir fiction and which earned him comparisons to Raymond Chandler. With the exception perhaps of Walter Mosley, I can think of no other writer -- especially a so-called crime writer -- who ranges so freely in his work and makes social and racial concerns ("this unspoken apartheid we live with still," as Sallis puts it) so central to his fictive worlds.

Like Mosley's hero Easy Rawlins, Lew Griffin is acutely aware of being a black man in a white world. You can read the Griffin novels and come away convinced that the author is African American, though Sallis is in fact white. He can then turn the tables and create a hero like Turner -- an older white detective, retired from an urban police force, who just wants to be left alone in his cabin in the woods. Black, white, urban, rural: It's as if a kind of primordial American consciousness, split long ago along racial and geographical divides, had been united and found voice in a single author.

The strange thing is that, aside from the color of their skin and the difference in their ages, Griffin and Turner seem like pretty much the same man.

Griffin is a lover of books. The New Orleans novels are packed with literary allusions. The first dozen pages of "Bluebottle," for instance, feature references to Emily Dickinson, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Blaise Cendrars and Longfellow -- the list goes on. Sometimes writers even become characters, as Himes does in "Black Hornet," delivering a lecture on how blacks have been turned against themselves in 20th century America to become their own worst enemies.

In the new series, Turner also quotes writers, but his real passion is reserved for music, from the Carter Family to Blind Willie McTell. He's a troubled man, a Vietnam vet with a failed marriage and two children he's lost track of, one of whom turns up unexpectedly in "Cripple Creek." Turner has also served time for killing his partner on the Memphis police force during a domestic dispute. Jailed for eight years, he studied for a degree in psychology while behind bars and later worked as a therapist until he decided to give it all up and retire to the woods.

Unlike Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who had a confused and sometimes even savage reaction to women (more often than not the killers in his stories), Sallis' heroes form loving if somewhat tentative relationships. But just as Griffin and Turner seem to share many traits, the women they love also resemble one another. This isn't so much a fault as an observation; there's a refreshing tenderness in these books that gives the lie to the idea that hard-boiled fiction requires emotionally distant men.

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