Salt River, By James Sallis, Walker & Co., 160 pp., $21.95
Deputy Sheriff John Turner, who works in a rural town near Memphis, is so many things at once that readers may have difficulty believing he's one man. He's a Vietnam War veteran, a former prison inmate, a former therapist, a crime investigator, and often a cowboy philosopher. Both he and the townspeople he's grown to love are every bit as laconic as characters from a Cormac McCarthy novel: "The world is so full of words," muses Turner, "And yet so much that's important goes forever unsaid."
James Sallis offers up a short novel filled with several dead bodies and much hard-boiled dialogue, all the while filling in Turner's complicated backstory. "Salt River" is an elegantly crafted murder mystery that mixes rural melancholia with minimalist lyricism. When Turner goes to Memphis as part of his murder investigation, he meets an old friend who had switched careers: "she seemed one of those people who skip across the surface of their lives, never touching down for long, forever changing, a bright stone surging into the air[.]"
Except for the finely polished nature of Sallis's prose, and Turner's sad musings about life, death, and regret, "Salt River" would be a conventional murder mystery. Yet Sallis ambitiously attempts to elevate the story, to present it as a metaphor for something fragile, beautiful, and submerged. The unnamed town is a kind of lovable character in Sallis's narrative. Here's how Turner describes it: "The town doesn't have much left. I've watched it whither away until some days you'd think the first strong wind could take it. I'm not sure how much I have left either."
In the deep-flowing friendships Turner develops with locals like Lonnie Bates, whose son died in a mysterious car crash, readers can almost feel Sallis's yearning to reach the dark depths of the spirit, to reveal hidden truths beneath the ordinary surface of things.
In one scene near the end, Turner admits to a distraught Bates that he (the sheriff) has been diagnosed with cancer: "when I was through he didn't say anything about miracles or prayers or remissions, as I knew he wouldn't, he just sat there a moment, looked over at me and said, 'That sucks too.' "
Another of Turner's old friends, a musician named Eldon Brown, is wanted by Texas police as a murder suspect, and comes to Turner for help. Turner listens to Brown's story and then decides to assist his friend in disappearing. Turner muses about what's become of Brown's life: "we find something that works for us - amassing money, playing jazz piano, or helping others, it doesn't much matter what - and we hang on, we ride that thing for all it's worth. The problem is that at some point, for many of us, it stops working."
It is in these cryptic asides made in the long delays between what Sallis's characters say, and that hint at deeper yearnings, where Sallis's novel becomes something more than a conventional murder mystery. It's perhaps to be expected that Sallis doesn't resolve the murder plot with a neat bow tied at the end. He's a writer who celebrates the unresolved feelings, the emptiness of loss, and the randomness of pain. "Salt River" is a highly unusual, atmospherically unique mystery novel, and fans of noir fiction will find much here to keep them turning its pages.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.