James Sallis

John Turner - Ex-Cop, Ex-Con, Ex-Psychotherapist, Tennessee


"Salt River"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 6, 2008)

"The past…is a gravity.  It holds you to the earth, but it also keeps pulling you down, trying, like the earth itself, to reclaim you.  And the future, always looking in that direction, planning, anticipating—that's a kind of freefall, your feet have left the ground, you're floating there, floating where there IS no there."

James Sallis, who can convey as much information in one sentence as most authors convey in a paragraph, concludes his John Turner trilogy with this dark, contemplative novel about life's unfinished stories.  Turner's own life has been a story in the making.  A war veteran and ex-con who spent nineteen months in prison, where he studied to become a psychological counselor, Turner eventually worked with the Memphis Police Department.  When his experiences with violent, big-city crime began to weigh too heavily, he moved to the small town of Cripple Creek in the remote countryside outside the city.  There he was persuaded to step in as temporary sheriff, only to discover that organized crime and violent death make their way even to small towns like Cripple Creek. 

At the outset of Salt River, more than two years later, and two years after the death of Val, the love of his life, Turner has seen and done it all, buffeted by fate and his own bad choices.  He has remained in Cripple Creek, but his life is dark, sad, and full of the knowledge that unexpected horrors can cripple, if not kill, even the most flickering of one's personal hopes.  "All I knew for certain," Turner says, "was that for too much of my life people around me wound up dying.  I wanted that to stop.  I wanted a lot of things to stop."

Though this novel could be considered a noir mystery, filled with violence, misery, and the inhumane behaviors with which men must deal in their everyday lives, the focus here is primarily on Turner and his "self-narrative."  In many ways a mystery man who refuses to wear his heart or his personal history on his sleeve, Turner deals with three pressing law enforcement issues, while, at the same time, reminiscing about his own life and trying to figure out who he is and how he fits into the universal scheme of things.  Billy Bates, the renegade son of the sheriff, crashes a car into City Hall and is seriously injured.  The circumstances under which he acquired the car are a pressing issue.  Isaiah Stillman, who has founded a commune in the hills, reports that his friend Merle has been murdered on his way to see Isaiah.  Merle has been carrying an unusual package.  And Milly Bates, wife of the sheriff's son Billy, is mysteriously kidnapped and may be dead.

Turner's philosophical introspection and the novel's valedictory tone become the primary focus, even as the excitement (and violence) of the plot twists evolve.  Spare with details and minimalist in style, Sallis shows Turner wrestling with the universal questions of identity.  Life, he shows us, is messy, and people's lives are unfinished stories.  People do what they can to muddle through, with little expectation that their efforts will bear fruit.  Turner observes that "there are mountain men or cowboys inside us all, Henry David Thoreau and Clint Eastwood riding double in our bloodstreams and our dreams." 

Ultimately, however, "we don't stub our toes on streets of gold and lead rich lives, we don't tell 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."  An intelligent and thoughtful novel of ideas, which just appears to be a thriller, Salt River is a memorable and beautifully realized novel which further enhances Sallis's reputation as one of the best contemporary noir writers out there.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
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"Cripple Creek"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 1, 2006)

"All my life, with my time in the jungle, my years on the street as a cop, prison days, psychiatric work, even the place I grew up—all my life I'd lived out of step and synch with the larger world, forever tottering on borders and fault lines.  It wasn't that I chose to do so; that's simply where I wound up."

In spare, minimalist prose, James Sallis continues the story of John Turner, whom he introduced in his previous novel, Cypress Grove.  Turner, a former policeman, convict, and psychotherapist, has left his job in Memphis after several traumatic experiences and moved to Cripple Creek, deep in the Tennessee countryside.  There he seeks solitude and an escape from big-city crime by spending his time restoring a house with Val Bjorn, his love, who is the legal counsel for a state police barracks.  Turner is as enigmatic in this novel as he was in Cypress Grove, someone not willing to share his innermost thoughts with the reader or anyone else.  The reader must piece together a character sketch from the clues Turner drops during the course of the novel.

During the lengthy recuperation of Sheriff Lonnie Bates from a gunshot wound, Turner has been helping the local police, but he soon becomes much more involved.  A Memphis man arrested for speeding has been found with two hundred thousand dollars in a sports bag in his car.  Jailed while he is being investigated, he has been sprung from the local jail by "goombahs" from Memphis, who, in a daring assault, have attacked and seriously injured the acting sheriff, Don Lee, and Lonnie Bates's daughter June.  Turner, deputized, returns to Memphis for the first time in two years, asking for help from Memphis police and discovering that the "Aleche network" has been behind the jailbreak.  By the time Turner returns to Cripple Creek a few days later, blood has been shed, and Turner has made some serious enemies, enemies who will upset the quietude of Cripple Creek.

Though this plot is filled with dark twists and violence as it develops, the plot is not the primary focus of this unusual noir crime novel.  Instead, Sallis keeps the reader firmly focused on Turner and his point of view as Turner tries to carve out a quiet life for himself and escape the demons of his past.  Matching his own lean style to Turner's uncommunicative personality, Sallis is exceedingly spare with details, sometimes making cryptic references to events from Turner's past without explaining them and dropping passing hints about his time in jail and his past police work, which he does not describe.  As Turner lives his domestic life with Val, works on their house, and shares quarters with Miss Emily, a wild possum who insists on living inside, his contentment with the quiet life contrasts sharply with the traumas he has apparently experienced--and created--during his police work in Memphis.

Giving new meaning to the adage of writing workshops that a writer should "recreate, not just tell about," Sallis presents vibrant episodes from various times in Turner's life, from the distant past—such as the dramatic plague of locusts he experienced as a child, and his attempt to give his grandfather's banjo to a Korean war veteran who has "lost his music"--to the more recent past in which he gives a good luck memento to a child predator on death row, whom he counseled in prison.  Through these flashbacks and flash forwards, most of them unconnected to the rest of the narrative, the reader sees Turner in action, as a genuinely kind and empathetic person, at the same time that he is violent and filled with bloodlust.  Sallis's tendency to present events and not to comment, leaving the conclusions up to the reader, involve the reader in new ways, creating, in Turner, a character with whom the reader identifies at the same time that she or he may be repelled by his actions.

As the novel shifts back and forth, it gradually evolves in new directions.  Turner's daughter, J.T., arrives unexpectedly in Cripple Creek, an unknown youth living in the woods behind Turner's cabin suffers a terrible death, people close to Turner are threatened, a hippie commune runs afoul of local residents, a town resident goes missing, and others close to Turner obey the urge to move on.  All these add to Sallis's portrait of Turner and his values--and to the portrait of Cripple Creek--while remaining independent of the plot and its mysteries. 

One of the most unusual and intelligent mysteries I've read in years, Cripple Creek, is also unique, a novel in which every word counts, even when those words are not adding to the plot.  Sallis's lean, mean style reflects both his main character, who is not interested in sharing personal information, and that style of noir writing in which events are presented and the reader is left to draw conclusions.  Beautifully crafted, carefully written, and stylistically unforgettable, Cripple Creek will surely be on the list of best written and most intriguing mysteries of the year. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

John Turner Series:

Turner Trilogy in one book:

Lew Griffin Series:

Poetry/Essays:

Nonfiction:

Related:

Movies from books:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

James SallisJames Sallis is a published poet, critic, translator, and novelist. He was born in Helena, Arkansas in 1944. He spent his childhood in Helena and has subsequently lived in New Orleans, London, New York City, Boston, Paris, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Sallis is multi-faceted man of many talents, Jim has worked as a creative writing teacher, respiratory therapist, musician, music teacher, screenwriter, periodical editor, book reviewer, and translator, winning acclaim for his 1993 version of Raymond Queneau's Saint Glinglin. Jim plays several musical instruments, including the guitar, french horn, fiddle, Hawaiian guitar, mandolin, sitar and dobro. He's also had an acting role in an independent film. He has written more than 100 short stories, poems, and essays; his reviews and essays have appeared in a number of publications including The Washington Post Book World, Los Angeles Times, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Boston Review. He has been shortlisted for the Anthony, Nebula, Edgar, Shamus, and Gold Dagger awards.

A former Tulane Scholar and Fellow, Sallis donated his personal papers to the university’s special collections in 1999.

Sallis lives with his wife, Karyn, in Phoenix, Arizona.

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