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Salt River A Novel; James Sallis; Walker & Co.: 148 pp., $21.95

December 30, 2007|Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman writes the Dark Passages column appearing monthly at latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarah weinman.com.

Whenever a critic reviewing a crime novel assigns literary significance to the book, there's a risk of falling into cliches about "transcending genre." The truth is that some writers use and abuse genre constraints as they see fit. They simply write to their voice and interests.

James Sallis is such a writer. His six-volume cycle that featured African American detective Lew Griffin in a pre-Katrina New Orleans now seems haunting and eerie. Griffin could not exist without the blueprints of an earlier crime fiction writer, Sallis' literary hero and biographical subject, Chester Himes.

But Sallis' emphasis on political tumult and existential questions in the Griffin novels also appear throughout his body of work, be it in short stories ("Time's Hammers," "Potato Tree"), poems ("Sorrow's Kitchen"), criticism ("Ash of Stars") or other novels ("Death Will Have Your Eyes," "Renderings"). The Griffin novels, which dip in and out of time, blending major American historical and contemporary events together, manage to be plotless even as they burst with story in teeming layers.

The surface trappings of Sallis' more recent novels have changed, but he extends his existentialist viewpoint even further. When readers first met John Turner in "Cypress Grove" (2003), he was truly ex officio: ex-cop, ex-con, ex-psychologist and ex-husband who exiled himself in a small town outside Memphis. Over the course of that book and "Cripple Creek" (2006), Turner gradually took root, acquiring friends, reconnecting with family and building his emotional core to accept love and then shocking loss.

Sallis opens his new novel, "Salt River," with Turner facing a truth head-on: "Sometimes you just have to see how much music you can make with what you have left." The phrase, first uttered by Val, Turner's now-deceased girlfriend, is the novel's leitmotif, twisting and shifting to arrive at the answer that Turner already knows applies both to the town and to himself: "With the town, it's all economics. As for me, I think maybe I've seen a few too many people die, witnessed too much unbearable sadness that still somehow had to be borne."

What will be borne in this slim volume is the return of Turner's friend Frank Eldon, a possible murder confession, the shedding of more blood, and the ever-looming sense of brittleness and tentative action that Turner's philosophy-spouting pal Doc Oldham terms "frangible." The word melds fragility with tangibility, but Sallis is really talking about a sense of stasis -- whether directly, as when Turner remarks that he has "been waiting all my life to figure out what to do," or more obliquely, as when he observes "how few of us actually make choices in our lives, how few of us have choices to make."

When Sallis' characters do make choices, however, he doesn't always give the reader a sense of closure. Rather, he invites chaos back in, as when a major character is never seen again, his or her fate left outside the scope of the book. This technique appeared recurrently in the Griffin cycle, but Sallis now drives home the point: that "so many people come into our lives, become important, then are gone."

Conventional crime fiction craves resolution, but by looking inside order's hairline fractures for any fleeting sense of chaos, the author creates a texture that is both comforting and quietly disturbing.

Even Sallis' use of genre conventions takes on greater import. His foreshadowing of a violent act with the phrase "the day was bright, the air clear, giving no hint of devastations recently wrought or of those to come" is a more beautifully written version of "had I but known," but the crystalline prose eliminates any hint of cliche.

And he conveys a major turning point in his protagonist's life with a simple admonishment from Doc Oldham that maybe Turner should tell someone and Turner's matter-of-fact rebuttal, "Who would I tell? And why?" This resonates with greater effectiveness than would pages of quasi-melodrama.

Sallis best intersects Turner's static existence with the foreboding elements outside his control in the closing pages of "Salt River." "So many stories leave you standing at the altar," Turner remarks, but instead of being afraid, he -- and by extension, the reader -- accepts this fate. "We don't stub our toes on streets of gold and lead rich lives, we don't tell the people we love how much we love them when it matters, we never quite inhabit the shadows we cast as we cross this world. We just go on."

These four words hold the power of simplicity and the musical ring of truth as only Sallis can deliver it -- as he has done bravely, consistently, for the last few decades.

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