Jim Sallis is the one who isn’t Bill Clinton’s official favourite purveyor of fiction, although his sequence of crime novels featuring the New Orleans polymath Lew Griffin (writer, melancholic, occasional lecturer in French Lit, sometime PI and full-time avatar of the author) has plenty of superficial similarities to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins project. Both men have received support from sharp-witted British independent presses. Mosley from Serpent’s Tail and Sallis from No Exit Press. Both men had early champions and a serious readership on this side of the Atlantic. Both men were drawing on the heritage of Chester Himes. But that’s where their paths divided. There was no percentage in Bill’s advisers bullet-pointing paperbacks composed by a peripatetic, a white man who wrote in black-face. Griffin does not aspire to Easy’s confidential charm, his bright-eyed savvy, his innocence. He’s a white man’s black, darker in spirit, thwarted and confused. And New Orleans, the setting for Sallis’s Griffin novels, is a mob town with murky connections to Kennedy conspiracies, voodoo, vampire faggots, jazz, child brothels and all the trash, black and white, of the Delta. It wasn’t a place – with its ‘meaty, rich smell of frying shrimp’, its ‘palms, hibiscus, yucca trees and rubber plants’ – to be closely associated with Clinton’s make-over into a caring global peacekeeper (with smoking gun and $400 haircut). Mosley’s Los Angeles was a safer option: the blurb writers could draw tactful comparisons with Polanski’s Chinatown, thereby positioning civic corruption in the distant past, the Forties – a period that photographed well, nice hats, frocks, autos, legitimate smoke. Mosley’s country-boy blacks drifted west from Texas looking for jobs in the shipyards (the setting of Chester Himes’s astringent first book, If He Hollers Let Him Go), while Sallis’s transients came south, down the Mississippi. This was a period when the Hollywood studios were an alternate government, capable, if they chose, of keeping the lid on minor PR inconveniences such as rape and murder. California had both closet Communists (‘premature anti-Fascists’) and carcinogenic cowboy alcoholics ready and willing to build careers on the blacklist. The virus that would surface decades later, disguised as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, began here. Fault lines in the American psyche are most obvious at the interface of showbiz saccharine and the political process: Monroe’s birthday tribute to JFK, Sinatra as MC at the Kennedy White House, late-liberal millionaires from Tinseltown rallying round Bill Clinton.
Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins sequence uses colour as its title gimmick – Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly – where Sallis opts for entomology. Nasty, flickering, sticky-footed, shit-eating bugs. Bugs with a literary pedigree. Bugs that are quotes from a poem you can’t quite remember. Bugs like a recipe from the Scottish play: Eye of the Cricket, Black Hornet, Moth, The Long Legged Fly. Sallis is a fastidious man, intelligent and widely read (genre fiction, poetry, the Modernist canon). There’s nothing slapdash or merely strategic about his work. This, after all, is someone prepared to take years to contrive a proper translation of Raymond Queneau’s complex artifice, Saint Glinglin. So if Sallis chooses bugs, there’s a reason for it. What he wants to taste is the otherness of insects, their fast-burn and utterly alien sense of time. The quotation from Enrique Anderson Imbert at the start of Eye of the Cricket clarifies the quest: ‘Then I felt within me the desperate rebelliousness of things that did not want to die, the thirst of mosses, the anxiety in the eyes of the cricket.’ Anxiety: that’s the tool with which Sallis fixes time. There is none of the neat, linear progression of the Mosley novels, one tale for each decade; Sallis backtracks, flashes forward, feels free to doctor what we think we know. The past is up for permanent revision. Old scabs are picked at until they bleed afresh.
Sallis outlined his temporal scheme when he explained to me how the original Lew Griffin novel, The Long Legged Fly, worked.
The first book covered the entire arc of a man’s life. I had done it, decade by decade, in four parts: the first part being, or at least beginning as, just very standard pulp detective writing, the violent incident and the guy returning to his PI office. But it very soon moves away from that and begins to circle towards what we assume is the autobiography of the first person narrator, Lew Griffin. The book becomes more and more real as it progresses and begins to turn itself into a sort of memoir almost. And then, towards the end of the fourth part, to actually become some sort of meditation – in which the very premise of the book is questioned. And you suddenly realise you really don’t know who is talking to you. You really don’t know who this person is. You’ve had several versions of this person – from being an outright murderer at the beginning to being a fairly standard PI.
The fury with which Griffin devours time – drifting, dreaming, drinking, deciding if he is the author of his own story – is peculiar and visionary. A psychosis of desire that takes the form of an eidetic seizure, a retinal fit. ‘I remember how intense, how alive things became as the sun sank low,’ Lew says. ‘Tables, chairs, corners of shelves, roofs. Sunlight, reluctant to let go, still clung to them. Lambent.’ This charged poetic of sensory experience sets Sallis apart, not only from the current stars of hardboiled lite, the Florida ecologist Carl Hiaasen and grizzled Elmore Leonard (as cannibalised by Quentin Tarantino), but also from Mosley. The Griffin books won’t reduce to exploitable Hollywood storylines, they’re much too rich and strange for that. Villains don’t have to be land-grabbing corporate monsters or tourists with an unfortunate taste in shirts. In fact, Sallis doesn’t really do villains. Or simplistic themes of sacrifice and redemption. Or gloatingly sadistic, designer existential shoot-outs. Or sparky New Women who have macho jobs, mend cars, keep dogs, but still have wondrously youthful chests and are always up for it. Dogs may mark the point at which Sallis and his deconstructed/reinvented crime novel break away from the form as we once knew and loved it. Wasn’t Humphrey Bogart as Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle, in Raoul Walsh’s film of W.R. Burnett’s High Sierra, undone by a barking mutt on the mountainside? How else could these gnarled recidivists signal their hearts of gold, if not by palling up to an orphan kid or stroking a shaggy pooch?
Sallis belongs, as I discovered when I visited him in Phoenix, Arizona, among the cat people. So many of the real writers, the old-timers (of my own age and more), are hiding out, animate but estranged, in a kind of Witness Protection programme. And they all live with cats. (As does Lew Griffin. The first responsibility of the solitary, damaged private eye is to feed an inherited animal. That’s how time passes. That’s how the passing days are signified: by the failure to open a tin of whale dreck. And they drink, the burnt-out investigators, or are recovering drunks – like the stressed writers who struggle, year after year, to reinvent them. Drink frees memory, dissolves the membrane between things.) I see them, these heroic survivors, as spectres from Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’. They’re waiting to be found, to be found out. They can’t remember their own aliases, all the old books merge into one story. Sallis is acutely aware of what makes him write, the nagging terrors – ‘existential pit things we all carry around with us’ – that have to be appeased. But he can’t recall where one book stops and another starts. ‘I don’t differentiate,’ he said. ‘In fact, I would have trouble telling you what happened in any single book.’
Neither cats nor authors go out much. Place is unimportant. It’s where you live, no more than that: a stopover. How did William Burroughs finish up in a clapboard cabin in Lawrence, Kansas, with his brood of sleek, well-fed felines? The old man mumbled something unconvincing about property prices. Why did the quintessentially English Michael Moorcock nominate the second Confederate governor of Texas’s mansion in Bastrop, thirty miles out of Austin, as a suitable estate for his tax exile? Only the cats know. Spooky, over-refined Egyptian beasts who are let out on a leash while the dew is on the grass, but otherwise confined to quarters. Survival on the new frontier depends on three things: cats, guns and e-mail. The sleeping beasts, curled into a fur-ball, operate as controllers, programming the writers to pitch a new kind of fiction: the familiar tricks and reflexes of genre fodder macerated in a literary sensibility. Poetry smuggled in at the back door. Sallis, an accomplished musician who has played and taught guitar, has a beautiful sense of the pitch and rhythm of language. He knows precisely how to use what he calls ‘the battery of effects available: alliteration, syllabics, alexandrines, slant rhymes, simple euphony’. A paragraph in one of the Griffin books will appear first as a piece of scene-setting, a sudden epiphany of light, and then be played back, chapters later, revised and restructured, as a quotation from a book that the investigator is reading. ‘What had begun as a letter to an old friend … had become the opening pages of a novel.’ The storyteller gains our trust because we know that he knows he is not telling the truth. He is improvising, shifting between modes, working the changes. ‘We learn to use memory,’ Sallis says, ‘the way we use art: use it to cobble together images of ourselves.’ Memory haunts Griffin, sight and smell and taste, restoring dead landscapes to a fragmented present tense: ‘The worn mahogany curb of the bar. A glass of bourbon sat before me, its outer surface smeared and greasy to the touch. A young roach circled water pooling about the glass.’
The characteristic perfume of a favourite quarter of the city brings it immediately back to Sallis. Moving around America, he chose New Orleans, where he attended and dropped out of Tulane University, as a setting for the Griffin novels because it was the kind of city that could form the character of a man. ‘He creates himself from nothing,’ Sallis said. From nothing except the particulars of a city of the mind. A city old enough to have antebellum architecture, where ‘bellum’ doesn’t mean the Second World War. New Orleans, a city with a vested interest in preserving museum-quality aspects of the past, proved itself worthy of fiction. It was, before Sallis began his project, one of the foci for James Lee Burke’s Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux. Sallis had a proper respect for Burke’s achievements: his sense of place, his pacing, his ease of discourse. Burke was very good on food, on the Gulf, the tension in the transit between easy-living in the countryside and the violent neuroses, the rage pulse, of the city.
Circumstance brought Sallis to Phoenix, a place for which he had no affection. He was a jobbing writer – books of poetry, musicology, translations from French, science fiction, crime, espionage, a road novel – so he had to find some other way to pay the rent, to fund his addiction to the word. He’d dropped out of university, in the Sixties, when he found that he could sell short stories (sometimes twice over) for two or three hundred dollars. So that closed the door on a future creative-writing gig, or an academic sinecure. A stroke of fortune that led him to train as a respiratory therapist. ‘I blundered into hospital work,’ Sallis said, ‘and found out that, being reasonably intelligent, I was able to do it fairy well. And then it made me very mobile. I was qualified to take care of critically ill patients, and, after a few years, of babies. I could go to just about any city in the country and immediately have a job.’
What he also had, as a ‘binge’ writer, was a way of shaping his work. Like some of the finest American authors of his period – the poet Ed Dorn or the perversely undervalued novelist Douglas Woolf – Sallis laboured at this or that, then broke off and wrote another book. This is the great privilege of the unsponsored, those without tenure. They become the last frontiersmen, energised by some new location, but always ready to move on, to shoot an arrow at the horizon.
The accidents of a life, in the end, are what give it form. The Sallis CV – Delta blues, New Orleans, French literary studies, hospital work, drink, the pain of memory – became the autobiography of Lew Griffin. The four published novels, very different in structure and style, have movements in common: hospital trauma, the death of a child or a woman, a lost weekend in Nighttown, the protagonist coming round from a beating and wondering not just where he is, but which book he’s in. To carry the sequel forward, through confession, anecdote, quotation from inspirational text, until he no longer needs to exist. Until everything that is to be told has been told. Sallis, like his friend George Pelecanos, author of Nick’s Trip and Down by the River where the Dead Men Go, is working at the end of a tradition. Pelecanos, Sallis claims, ‘shares the dissolution of his detective at the same time as the dissolution of the attempt to write the classic detective novel’.
The smoky romanticism of the quest story, brought to literary respectability by Raymond Chandler, has collapsed into self-parody and a decadent excess of style. A cinema of ghosts represented by the cruel distance between The Big Sleep as realised by Howard Hawks in 1946, from a script by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, and the sad remake, written and misdirected by Michael Winner in 1978. Humphrey Bogart’s momentum, his Jacobean wit, is transformed by the passage of time into Robert Mitchum’s monumental disdain. Mitchum is breathless, sculptural. He moves with extreme reluctance, as if charging an excess tariff for every step. Sallis understands how it’s done, he’s been to the classes. He’s learnt how to assemble the well-constructed mystery. But he prefers to subvert the form. Instead of advancing the narrative, as Chandler does, through a series of collisions, bar-room and bedroom interrogations, stylised wisecracks, Sallis lets Lew Griffin sleep it off. The world will come to him. In Black Hornet, Griffin pursues a rooftop assassin (a liberal reworking of Dirty Harry) during a period of racial tension in New Orleans. He’s bombarded by Black Muslim activists, as they shift from berets and dark glasses to business suits. (In a typical Sallis conceit, the Muslim heavy reinvents himself as ‘William Sansom’.) He’s paying the rent by doing the usual PI stuff and he’s reading Camus. ‘It takes a while,’ he says, ‘for us to realise that our lives have no plots.’ He can lie on his bed, leafing through The Outsider or rereading Chester Himes, while waiting for the characters in Sallis’s novel, in which he becomes a co-author, to knock on his door. The form is meditative and interior. Like Himes in If He Hollers Let Him Go, dream is the hinge. Psychic slippage. The demons arrive in other forms. Metaphors take a prophetic shape. And Sallis convinces himself that this is a form of realism.
Isn’t that what we do? In real life people don’t go out and meet other people in bars. They don’t do those PI things. It just doesn’t work that way. A young man coming into knowledge of the world, into knowledge of himself, in New Orleans in the Sixties, a time of incredible turbulence in our country, would have to take notice. He’s asking ‘who am I?’ and he’s asking it as a person who is uncorrupted by whatever slime he’s in at the moment. He has to ask: ‘What is it to be black in this society?’ He’s also reading Chester Himes, a man who repeatedly asked that question.’
Not only reading Himes, but attending a (fictitious) lecture Himes gives at Dillard University. This is the kind of interlude that could only happen in a Sallis novel. It’s a return tribute to the French, to the New Wave cinema, for their love of the roman noir. ‘Chester Himes is angry. Very angry,’ says the man who introduces the lecture. ‘Chester Himes has been angry for a long time.’ The blood rage, the heat in If He Hollers, is something that Griffin (black man as imagined by white man) doesn’t have. Griffin’s essence is his schizophrenia: poet and thug, walker and static brooder, white man in black skin. This is no Al Jolson performance calculated to charm, nor a vulgar, rose-between-teeth travesty like Olivier’s Othello. There is nothing flashy about it. There’s no twist in the tail as there is in Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up, where the meaning of the book swivels on the final revelation that the narrator is black, so that all the assumptions of the readers of pulp picaresque are challenged. Pick-Up, as Sallis remarks in an interview with Gerald Houghton, ‘pivots on that final realisation as on a heel, and becomes, suddenly, quite a different book’. But Sallis is playing a very different game: displaced autobiography. Where Walter Mosley shifts the psychotic rage of his protagonist Easy Rawlins to a second character, Mouse, Sallis presents Griffin as a multiple man: Mouse and Easy in one skin. The effect, carried through the sequence, is both theatrical and confessional; rapid changes of stance and presentation, masks revealing masks as in Genet’s The Blacks. Griffin is doubly estranged: as writer and as man of colour. Sallis’s true question is not ‘what is it to be black in this society?’ but ‘what is it to be an undervalued writer in no society?’ One of those who have ‘gone permanently out of print, like many of our civil liberties, sometime during the Reagan-Bush dynasties’. But, by creating an impoverished agrarian black – from Helena, Arkansas, like himself – he finds a suitable locum or tanist for the damaged poet.
‘A lot of it,’ Sallis admits,
is laziness. I have a person who is approximately my age and who was originally from the South. When the character needs to talk about the past, his personal biography, it’s easier for me to just appropriate my own and slap it down. I don’t have to wonder if I got it right. But it also, in the writing, creates a real power – because I am writing about my own life, even if I am transplanting it. It makes it much harder for me, much more real, and a little more difficult too.
The ground is prepared for the trance of composition. Sallis writes fast, without plotting; then revises with great care, labours to make language flow and shine. He comes back, again and again, to a single quotation from the poet David Lunde; one that Griffin, believe it or not, stumbles on while browsing through the racks of Beaucoup Books on Magazine Street: ‘We must learn to put our distress systems into code.’ There it is every time, in every book, the great theme that underlies the entire sequence. Writer as spy. Writer as private detective blindly struggling through the labyrinth of his own consciousness. Sallis is very concerned with questions of identity. After our conversation he wrote to me, wanting to be sure that I’d understood this, particularly in relation to his paranoid road novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes.
‘Edge’ literatures such as science fiction and mystery typically plunge right into mankind’s grandest questions, unabashedly attempting to place some kind of frame around man’s life in the universe; just so. Death utilises the thriller form to investigate identity. The spy’s identity is infinitely malleable – and may in fact be only an artificial construct. The apartness of the text reflects the distance of the narrator from any self. The novel is his questioning, and finally his reconstruction, of identity.
Griffin’s blackouts, his returns to drinking and the street are orchestrated against the climactic occasions when fictions present themselves to him. He achieves identity through losing himself in the act of composition. Nothing is more disturbing than to be confronted, as he is in Eye of the Cricket, by a hospitalised vagrant who claims his name, and who owns a copy of one of his novels with an inscription to his missing son. The pain is tangible. Nothing happens for the first time, everything is ‘reimagined’. Drinking to forget, writing to remember: ‘Four years since I’d done much real writing. Four years since I’d had a drink.’
Griffin’s lost son is shadowed by the suicided son of his white protector, the ‘good’ cop, Don Walsh. And by the death of Sallis’s own son. Griffin’s father dies in hospital, but he refuses to visit him. His mother drifts into ‘silent, palpable madness’. He ‘plasters over these wounds, again and again’, as Sallis says. ‘He tries things that don’t wound. That is the process of the novels: discovering compensatory activities that will make the pain manageable.’ Walking the city until the feet bleed. Falling into ‘Hopi Mean Time’ as it is expounded by Doo-Wop, a Tiresias of the city’s bars, a man who exchanges stories for drinks. Pain, in this ocean of time with its shifting currents, is historic. No longer personal.
It seemed clumsy to ask Sallis to identify the source of Lew Griffin’s wound, or to describe how closely it related to his own. ‘In my books,’ Sallis said,
there are always severely damaged people who are just trying to get by for 200 pages. As far as my autobiographical elements, yes, a lot of this is taken from me. I do feel there is this core of darkness and nasty things. I don’t know where it came from. It took me many years to recognise that it was there and that it could be controlled. I find that I can just write with greater emotion and depth if I take these things from myself. It’s not that I step down and want Lew to be a figurehead, an avatar of myself. It’s just that to make Lew’s darkness credible and terrible, I use my own. My mother was unbalanced. I’m not really sure what was wrong with her. Our family never talks about it. However my son seems to have inherited a larger dose than I have and killed himself two years ago. And I’ve also used him as the model for Don Walsh’s son who also kills himself.
Standing on the balcony of the Holiday Inn in Phoenix, all of Sallis’s No Exit Press novels spread out on the bed behind me, I realised what disturbed me about this place. It was in colour. The Griffin novels were sepia, with splashes of bruised purple, remembered blue. Phoenix itself should be monochrome in homage to the opening of Hitchcock’s Psycho, rather than Gus Van Sant’s cover version. I was in the wrong movie, an overlay of Point Blank and David Cronenberg’s Crash. Down below me was the irrigation channel where Lee Marvin witnessed a hit. There was Cronenberg’s multi-lane freeway. And there, in the over-clarified, early morning light, were the palm trees, the flags and distant mountains. Reflections in the long sliding window threw back my pale ghost, decked out in high white clouds that didn’t move, the quicksilver of the ditch and the road, bands of scrubby yellow-green foliage. The air smelt like CinemaScope: a convex width of competing concessions, desert, rubber-on-concrete, Burger King, bougainvillaea, orange blossom.
Sallis, a soft-spoken courteous man with a minimalist tidemark of grey beard, had met me at the airport. He’d just returned from a rare outing to New York, where he’d been presenting a television documentary on Chester Himes. He had the use of his wife Karyn’s car (number plate: ATTITUDE), so he was able to give me a tour of the town. He was, he said, a walker by temperament, rather than a driver. Which is why he hankered after New Orleans. Phoenix was no longer the time-warp cow-town from which Marion Crane flees in Psycho. Now it’s a Barry Goldwater memorial park, that name was everywhere, along with stiff pop-art flags and shimmering, hi-gloss real estate. Phoenix had been favoured over Silicon Valley and Los Angeles as the sink-hole for military/industrial patronage. The afternoon drive with Sallis was so sharp-edged, so bright, so much divided into zones and grids that it was hallucinatory; a prismatic gush of sunlight from the wing-mirrors bringing cut-out advertising figures, lap-dancers and cowboys, to life.
In the morning, I’d walked from the hotel to the Sallis bungalow. ‘My favourite part of most stories is where they describe where the guy lives,’ he told me. ‘I absolutely love to hear what he has on his shelves and what his tea mugs look like. That’s the most important thing in the world to me.’ On his kit-assembled shelves, Sallis has CDs and books, a catholic selection, control-freak organised, in nice condition, plenty of paperbacks and review copies; science fiction, poetry, crime. The tools of the trade: as well as philosophy (by his brother John among others), French literature and plenty of proper angst-and-pepper stuff in several languages. The bungalow, screened off from a quiet street (flags, palm-trees, car-ports, a patch of grass on which a large rabbit sometimes appears), is unpretentious and functional. A better class of scene-of-the-crime Polaroid, no mess. An anonymous set which can be abandoned or reconstituted as soon as the next move becomes necessary or desirable. Sallis’s office is forensic: images and files related to the various works in progress, and an answering-machine that stays on. Sallis, very sensibly, dislikes speaking on the telephone.
I’m brought back, yet again, to my conviction that the best American writers are hiding out like CIA sleepers, long forgotten fugitives from a discontinued campaign. (Check out the cat calendar in the corridor as the code of membership.) The war took place in the Sixties, a time of healthy and regular cultural exchanges with Europe; when the languages of science and poetry seemed to be on the point of forging an alliance. Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, which he often funded from the profits of his sword and sorcery writings, was edited for a time by Sallis. Writers such as J.G. Ballard and (later) M. John Harrison, as well as Sallis himself, were proving that it was possible to operate a communality of the imagination that drew on Burroughs and Borges as well as Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester. Now the only way for the veterans of that generation to work is to smuggle their subversive poetic into what Sallis calls ‘the Halloween bag’ of genre fiction – but without feeling bound by any of the conventions of that market. ‘I use a lot of the energy, the energy-giving parts of the detective novel,’ Sallis says. To carry his Griffin sequence to its conclusion he has to write with more discipline, more vision, a more cunningly disguised palimpsest of echoes and quotations, than the mainstream literary novel demands. He has to forge an almost subterranean life of restless movement and secret conviction. Long may he thrive, this man in the pulp hack’s Florida-motel shirt and the scholar’s thin gold spectacles. The decommissioned author who sits in his dirt yard, under an orange tree, running the riffs on an acoustic guitar.