By James Sallis
No Exit Press, 2016
‘About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters…’
In James Sallis’s latest, the protagonist is Lamar Hale, a doctor in a small town called Willnot. At the close (page 191) there is a passage where the sheriffs in Jim Thompson’s novels are discussed and it struck me that you can view Lamar as Sallis’s updated version of the doctors to be found in the novels of Thompson’s fellow Black Box Thrillers (remember them?) author William Riley Burnett. Only in one of Burnett’s small towns Lamar would be called ol’ Doc Hale.
Anyway, here Lamar lives with his partner Richard, a teacher, and he is at the centre of things: he knows the townspeople, some of them as patients, and the sheriff confers with him regularly. He also has a curious affliction in that he experiences ‘visitations’ or ‘habituations’ – at certain moments, other people invade his consciousness. Sallis has rarely written conventional crime novels and here (as with the earlier The Killer Is Dying) he introduces a paranormal element to the proceedings. So much so that you wonder at certain points – reading this writer is a salutary pleasure, always – what are the rules of this game, this hybrid genre? For the most part, mind, you enjoy the people and their stories and you get an inkling of how queer and strange it is to be human.
This is a novel that ranges over others’ lives, none of whose travails – not even Lamar’s, bless him – is foregrounded for long. It is a pageant, kind of. It is like looking at a painting by Brueghel, your eye drawn to one person or crowd of people then another, alighting perhaps on a boy falling from the sky or a man carrying a cross. But certainly not resting there for long.
Willnot is a masterpiece from an old (yet still youthful-looking, as can be seen from the photo on the inside back cover) Master. The publisher’s description of the book can be seen here.