Sallis, James 1944–
Sallis, James 1944–
Born December 21, 1944, in Helena, AR; son of Chappelle Horace (a clerk) and Mildred Clodine Sallis; married Jane Rose (an artist), February 21, 1964 (divorced); married second wife, Karyn; children: (first marriage) Dylan Anthony (deceased). Education: Attended Tulane University, 1961-63, and the University of Texas, 1983-84.
Writer. Has worked as a college instructor, publisher's reader, respiratory therapist, music teacher, screenwriter, translator, book reviewer, and magazine editor; has taught writing workshops at Clarion College, Pennsylvania University of Washington, and Tulane University; currently writing instructor at Phoenix College, Phoenix, AZ, and Otis College, Los Angeles, CA. Member of the musical group Three-Legged Dog.
Tulane Scholar and Fellow; Lifetime Achievement Award, Bouchercon, 2007; has been shortlisted for numerous prominent genre awards, including the Anthony Award, Nebula Award, Edgar Award, Shamus Award, and Gold Dagger Award.
"LEW GRIFFIN" SERIES
The Long-legged Fly (also see below), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1992.
Moth (also see below), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1993.
Black Hornet, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1994.
Eye of the Cricket, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1997.
Bluebottle, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1999.
The Long-legged Fly [and] Moth, No Exit Press (Manchester, England), 2000.
Ghost of a Flea, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2001.
"JOHN TURNER" SERIES
Cypress Grove (mystery novel), Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2003.
Cripple Creek (mystery novel), Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2006.
Salt River, Walker and Co. (New York, NY), 2007.
The War Book, Hart-Davis (London, England), 1969, Dell (New York, NY), 1971.
The Shores Beneath, Avon (New York, NY), 1973.
Jazz Guitars: An Anthology, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1996.
The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1996.
A Few Last Words (science-fiction short stories), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.
The Guitar Players: One Instrument and Its Masters in American Music, Morrow (New York, NY), 1982, revised edition, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1994.
Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes, Gryphon Books (Brooklyn, NY), 1993, revised edition, 2000.
(Translator) Raymond Queneau, Saint Glinglin, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1993.
Limits of the Sensible World (short stories), Host Publications (Austin, TX), 1994.
Renderings (novel), Black Heron Press (Seattle, WA), 1995.
Death Will Have Your Eyes: A Novel about Spies, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Chester Himes: A Life, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2000.
Gently into the Land of the Meateaters (essays), Black Heron Press (Seattle, WA), 2000.
Time's Hammers: Collected Stories, Toxic (Edgbaston, Birmingham, England), 2000.
Sorrow's Kitchen (poetry), Michigan State University Press (East Lansing, MI), 2000.
A City Equal to My Desire (short stories), Point Blank Press/Wildside (Rockville, MD), 2000.
Drive (novel), Poisoned Pen Press (Scottsdale, AZ), 2005.
A James Sallis Reader (short stories), Point Blank Press/Wildside (Rockville, MD), 2005.
Potato Tree (short stories), Host Publications (Austin, TX), 2007.
Author of introduction to Asleep in the Sun, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, New York Review of Books Classics (New York, NY), 2004. Translator of the works of poets, including Raymond Queneau, Yves Bonnefoy, Blaise Cendrars, Andrei Voznesensky, Francis Ponge, Pablo Neruda, Jacques Dupin, and Marcelin Pleynet; translator of works by authors, including Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Lermontov, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Marek Hlasko. Contributor to periodicals, including Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Southwest Review, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, South Dakota Review, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, New Worlds, Pequod, America Poetry Review, Poetry East, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Now, Western Humanities Review, International Poetry Review, Transatlantic Review, Galaxy, Ann Arbor Review, and Negative Capability. Contributor to the short-story anthology Breaking Windows: A Fantastic Metropolis Sampler, Prime Books, 2003.
Poetry editor, Riverside Quarterly, 1964-66; editor, New Worlds, 1966-68. Reviewer for Boston after Dark and Fusion, 1970-71; features writer, reviewer, and columnist, Texas Jazz, 1980-83; book reviewer for Dallas Morning News, 1981-83, Los Angeles Times, 1993, Washington Post Book World, 1993—, and Boston Review; columnist for the Boston Globe, 2003-06.
Sallis's novel Drive is in production as a motion picture starring Hugh Jackman and produced by Marc Platt and Jon Palermo.
James Sallis's works span a variety of genres. He has written science fiction, detective fiction, nonfiction, biography, literary criticism, and essays on jazz. "With his highly imagistic stories," stated St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers contributor Robert Thurston, "[Sallis] has regularly displayed a finely honed mastery of sophisticated literary techniques and sharply etched psychological insights."
In his fiction, Sallis often writes of alienated characters. "Many of [Sallis's] stories are moving portrayals of troubled or dazed individuals who are dissociated from their environments," stated Thurston. "In nearly every Sallis story the main character is helpless, or at least quite passive. Things are dreadfully confused in his private life or are being disrupted in the outside world." Sallis's crime novels featuring the black New Orleans-based private detective Lew Griffin are both detective stories and esoteric works of fiction. Charles Champlin, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called The Long-legged Fly, the first of the Griffin novels, "a kind of spiritual autobiography in the form of a private eye novel. Both moving and literate beyond the expectations of the form, it was a sharp-edged portrait of a black intellectual hanging tough despite internal and external demons."
Sallis continues his "Lew Griffin" series with the second installment, Moth. In this book, Griffin sets out to find Alouette, the daughter of his recently deceased former lover Laverne Adams, who has run away. The novel addresses issues of friendship and family and what people owe each other in the way of support. Alouette's crack baby lies dying in the hospital as Griffin searches for the young woman. Along the way, he also seeks to help a colleague recover his son, who has gone missing as well, a bitter reflection on Griffin's own failed relationship with his son. In addition, Griffin treats readers to his thoughts on a number of great writers, from Proust to Kierkegaard, and works through his emotions regarding various people in his own life, including Laverne. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "the novel's rewards reside less in linear plot than in rich characterization, captivating rhythms and lyrical voice."
Black Hornet, the third volume in Sallis's "Lew Griffin" series, sends readers back to the late 1960s, before Griffin is a detective, when he is paying the bills by working for a collection agency. A sniper is terrorizing the city over the course of a long, hot summer, and the killings appear to be racially motivated. When a white woman is gunned down just inches away from Griffin, she becomes the sniper's sixth apparent victim. The killing, happening in such physical proximity, motivates Griffin to look into the situation himself. Catherine Texier, writing for the New York Times Book Review, opined that "the best part of Black Hornet is its rich tapestry of social unrest and vividly evoked characters and settings." Bill Ott, reviewing for Booklist, observed that "this is powerful stuff, not for those to whom ‘hard-boiled’ is just a matter of style." A contributor for Publishers Weekly opined that "Sallis's New Orleans sparkles gaudily even in the passionate economy of his prose."
The fourth book in the series, Eye of the Cricket, takes place in contemporary New Orleans. "Griffin's musings—on the art of fiction or on being black in New Orleans then and now—are as compelling as ever," wrote Booklist reviewer Bill Ott. Having lived through years of alcoholism, Griffin is now a writer and professor who is looking for his son, David, and other missing children. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that the story "leads up to an ending that manages to be dazzling, poignant, and totally satisfying." Library Journal contributor Rex E. Klett noted the "literate prose, and skillful and diverse characterizations" to be found in Eye of the Cricket.
Bill Ott, writing in Booklist, described Bluebottle as "a patchwork of scenes stitched together more by literary allusions than by storytelling." The story goes back in time to Griffin's year of recovery from a gunshot wound, a year during which he seldom experienced consciousness. He is blind and cannot remember the details of the shooting, except for the fact that he was leaving a bar with a white woman named Dana Esmay. Now he is searching for the person who shot him and at the same time is looking for a missing writer who had been researching a group of white supremacists. A Kirkus Reviews writer felt the story had no end. "There never is in a novel by Sallis, the poster boy for inconclusiveness," said the reviewer, who added that Bluebottle did offer "some good writing." A Publishers Weekly contributor called Sallis's voice "unique among mystery writers, and this novel, like previous ones in the series, is unforgettable." Rex E. Klett, writing in the Library Journal, noted that the book offers "more fine work from a talented writer."
In Ghost of a Flea, the final installment in Sallis's "Lew Griffin" series, pigeons are the victims, as someone appears to be poisoning the birds. Griffin's mood sinks to an all-time low in this volume, as he struggles to find his son only to lose him again, watches another relationship fade and end, and continues to think day in and day out in his atypically philosophical manner. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews commented that "though despair eventually triumphs, it does so over luminously evocative prose and a protagonist of great charm whose wit flashes defiantly." Bill Ott, writing for Booklist, opined that "this unconventional conclusion to the genre's most unconventional series will strike a typically atonal but haunting chord." A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that "fans of particularly sophisticated writing will love the experience of being drawn deeper and deeper into circles of narrative complexity." Rex E. Klett, in a review for the Library Journal, dubbed the work a "stimulating mix of evocative imagery, learned literate references, [and] earthy observations."
In 2003, Sallis published the mystery novel Cypress Grove. Having moved to Tennessee to find a slower pace and leave his past behind, the book's main character, Turner, is quickly pulled into assisting on a murder case. As an ex-convict, former police officer, and psychologist, the recent retiree's help is needed by the local sheriff. As developments in the case, which involves the murder of a drifter carrying mail belonging to the town's mayor, progress slowly, Turner is faced with events from his past. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly referred to the book as a "solid, lyrical and very human-scale mystery."
At the heart of Sallis's 2005 book, Drive, which a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called "neo-noir," is a character who remains nameless throughout the novel. A stunt driver for the movie industry, the character explains that he drives almost all the time, whenever he can, including work as a getaway driver for robberies. After a robbery goes sour and a contract is placed on his head, he must use his driving skills to evade those pursuing him. The same reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that with this book "Sallis gives us his most tightly written mystery to date."
Cripple Creek, the second Turner book after Cypress Grove, is a "superb second entry" in the Turner series, asserted Booklist reviewer Bill Ott. Dodging his past and staying a few steps ahead of trouble in rural Cypress Grove, Tennessee, Turner has taken on the job of deputy sheriff in the nondescript town and is recovering from the travails of his life in Memphis. A budding relationship with teacher and musician Val Bjorn is improving his social life, while his long-estranged daughter has unexpectedly arrived from Seattle, seeking to mend their relationship. Even his law-enforcement job is unusually satisfying. When a routine traffic stop and arrest for speeding turns into something more sinister, however, Turner's tenuously placid life changes for the worse. The arrested motorist turns out to be a Memphis hard case with more than two hundred thousand dollars in cash in the trunk. A visit from the man's associates results in a jailbreak and the shooting of Sheriff Lee. Though Lee clings to life, Turner wants revenge, and he uses his former contacts in Memphis to locate and dispatch the thugs responsible. To his horror, he finds that he has not solved the problem but has instead set in motion a game of deadly escalating vendettas that puts not only Turner but also everyone he knows and loves into potentially lethal danger. Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Frank Wilson called Sallis's writing "smooth as aged bourbon," while Library Journal critic Jo Ann Vicaral concluded that Sallis "has a wonderful command of the English language, which makes his every book an experience to savor."
Sallis returns to the "John Turner" series with its concluding volume, Salt River. The start of the brief but emotionally dense novel finds Turner in mourning for his lover Val, who was murdered at the close of Cripple Creek. He finds himself sinking deeper into his misery, yet it is Val's advice that he recalls and uses to keep himself afloat despite the pain he feels. She had told him to live his life to the fullest, to take advantage of the time he has and not merely fritter it away, and that is what he grasps with both hands, even as things continue to go wrong and he finds himself faced with yet more tragedy, including the death of the former sheriff's son. Bill Ott, reviewing for Booklist, observed that, "like a tightly structured blues song, the melancholy tale finds resonance in every line and every prolonged chord." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "it's the poetic prose … and the richly described rural Southern backdrop that make this slim book such a rewarding read."
Renderings tells the story of a writer, both his life and his relationships. While the work has a more literary feel than most of Sallis's other books, it was less well received overall. Something of an experimental effort, it was criticized by a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who opined that "Sallis seems to have adopted all the stereotyped trappings of literary fiction without really adding something of himself," and went on to label the work as clichéd and predictable.
Potato Tree is a collection of forty-one short stories, some of which are only a few pages long, but all of which pack an emotional punch. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly suggested the works are "best sampled in small doses," citing Sallis's haunting subject matter and vivid descriptions as frequently disturbing. Entries range from "53rd American Dream," which tells of a family of cannibals, to "Others," a sad vignette about a man whose obsession with personal ads has replaced any real attempt at a life. The reviewer went on to declare that "virtually all the selections have at least one memorable moment."
Among Sallis's nonfiction titles are edited works and biographies. His Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, which he edited, is a collection of essays on the prolific work since the late 1960s of the writer who had won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for his science fiction novels by age twenty-five. Sallis has included contributions by Jean Mark Gawron, Kathleen L. Spencer, Ray Davis, Ken James, David N. Samuelson, and others. Sinda Gregory wrote in the African American Review that the essays "are united by a set of core issues—semiological, racial, cultural, sexual, and aesthetic—that are central to all of Delany's writing." Gregory approved of Sallis's choice of essays, which are "more interested in examining the specific treatment these issues receive in his work than in showcasing these issues to further their own agendas…. Ash of Stars underscores and often illuminates the range of narrative forms, aesthetic approaches, and intellectual concerns that makes [Delany's] writing unique."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote of Chester Himes: A Life that Sallis "delivers a satisfying, thoughtful, long-overdue biography of Chester Himes (1909-1984), a singular American writer and fascinating figure." Himes began his writing career while serving time in jail for robbery. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "Sallis does not shy away from the disturbing aspects of Himes's past, painting his subject as a man with true faults and weaknesses." Himes's detective stories are set in contemporary Harlem, and his characters are blacks who experience the same rejection based on race that Himes himself endured during the racially charged decades of the 1940s and 1950s. Sallis writes about Himes's early life, his work, and his expatriation in Europe, during which time he wrote the detective novels that clearly established him as an important writer on the other side of the Atlantic. Himes never gained the recognition in the United States that he deserved. Booklist reviewer Vernon Ford found that "Himes's unique blend of horror, sorrow, and humor should make this biography widely appealing among contemporary readers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
African American Review, spring, 1999, Sinda Gregory, review of Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, p. 172.
Booklist, October 15, 1994, Bill Ott, review of Black Hornet, p. 404; July, 1997, Bill Ott, review of Death Will Have Your Eyes: A Novel about Spies, p. 1804; September 15, 1997, Bill Ott, review of Eye of the Cricket, p. 215; February 15, 1998, review of Black Hornet, p. 1040; January 1, 1999, Bill Ott, review of Bluebottle; February 15, 2001, Vernon Ford, review of Chester Himes: A Life, p. 1100; January 1, 2002, Bill Ott, review of Ghost of a Flea, p. 821; May 1, 2003, Bill Ott, review of Cypress Grove, p. 1553; October 15, 2004, Frank Sennett, review of A City Equal to My Desire, p. 391; March 1, 2006, Bill Ott, review of Cripple Creek, p. 74; May 1, 2006, Bill Ott, "The Year's Best Crime Novels," review of Cripple Creek, p. 8; December 1, 2007, Bill Ott, review of Salt River, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly, December 30, 2005, Jennifer Reese, "Literature of the Year," review of Drive, p. 148.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1997, review of Death Will Have Your Eyes, p. 905; October 15, 1997, review of Eye of the Cricket, p. 1558; November 15, 1998, review of Bluebottle, p. 1635; December 15, 2000, review of Chester Himes, p. 1749; September 15, 2001, review of Ghost of a Flea, p. 1328; February 15, 2006, review of Cripple Creek, p. 164.
Library Journal, November 1, 1997, Rex E. Klett, review of Eye of the Cricket, p. 120; January, 1999, Rex E. Klett, review of Bluebottle, p. 164; December 1, 2001, Rex E. Klett, review of Ghostof a Flea, p. 178; July, 2003, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of Cypress Grove, p. 131; April 1, 2006, Jo Ann Vicaral, "Mystery," review of Cripple Creek, p. 68.
London Review of Books, March 18, 1999, review of Eye of the Cricket, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, Charles Champlin, review of The Long-legged Fly, p. 8.
Mystery News, December/January, 2006, James Clar, "James Sallis: Mystery's Man of Letters," interview with James Sallis.
New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1984, Ira Gitler, review of Jazz Guitars: An Anthology, p. 16; September 6, 1992, Marilyn Stasio, review of The Long-legged Fly, p. 17; October 17, 1993, Ruth Bayard Smith, review of Moth, p. 42; November 20, 1994, Catherine Texier, review of Black Hornet, p. 36; January 24, 1999, Marilyn Stasio, review of Bluebottle, p. 24; March 18, 2001, Robert Polito, "Hard-boiled: In His Crime Novels, Chester Himes Found an Outlet for the Turbulent Life," p. 11.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 2006, Frank Wilson, "Twangy Prose of Cripple Creek Can't Overcome Odd Moral Outlook," review of Cripple Creek.
Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1993, review of Moth, p. 90; August 8, 1994, review of Black Hornet, p. 390; May 8, 1995, review of Renderings, p. 292; June 9, 1997, review of Death Will Have Your Eyes, p. 39; September 8, 1997, review of Eye of the Cricket, p. 61; November 16, 1998, review of Bluebottle, p. 58; January 8, 2001, Mike Newirth, "PW Talks to James Sallis," p. 58, review of Chester Himes, p. 58; November 12, 2001, review of Ghost of a Flea, p. 39; May 12, 2003, review of Cypress Grove, p. 48; August 1, 2005, review of Drive, p. 48; January 30, 2006, review of Cripple Creek, p. 37; March 27, 2006, Michelle King, "Baby, Hugh Can Drive Your Car," p. 15; February 26, 2007, review of Potato Tree, p. 56; November 5, 2007, review of Salt River, p. 46.
Science Fiction Chronicle, October, 1997, review of Ash of Stars, p. 51.
Science Fiction Studies, March, 1997, review of Ash of Stars, p. 154.
Times Literary Supplement, December 5, 1997, review of Death Will Have Your Eyes, p. 20.
Washington Post Book World, August 17, 1997, review of Death Will Have Your Eyes, p. 4; January 31, 1999, review of Bluebottle, p. 10.
Allreaders.com,http://www.allreaders.com/ (September 1, 2006), Harriet Klausner, review of Cypress Grove; Quien Katan, review of Cypress Grove.
Crime Time,http://www.crimetime.co.uk/ (September 1, 2006), Mark Thwaite, profile of James Sallis; Barry Forshaw, "James Sallis: Dissonant Chords," interview with James Sallis; Woody Haut, "James Sallis: An Overview," profile of James Sallis.
Fantastic Fiction,http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/ (September 1, 2006), bibliography of James Sallis.
James Sallis Home Page, http://www.jamessallis.com (September 1, 2006).
No Exit Press Web site,http://www.noexit.co.uk/ (September 1, 2006), biography of James Sallis.
ReadySteadyBook,http://www.readysteadybook.com/ (September 1, 2006), Mark Thwaite, review of Ghost of a Flea.
Three-Legged Dog Web site, http://www.three-leggeddog.org/ (September 1, 2006), Web site of Sallis's musical group.