"Willnot" James Sallis
"You live with someone year after year, you think you've heard all the stories....but you never have."
This is a new author to me although I have since realised that Sallis has a huge back catalogue and no less that 16 novels to his name! He is also the author of short stories, essays and poems. He has reviewed books for the LA Times, New York Times and Washington Post and is the winner of several literary prizes. The praise for this book is impressive and he is clearly highly regarded within the world of crime fiction.
In the woods outside the town of Willnot, the remains of several people have suddenly been discovered, unnerving the community and unsettling Hale, the town's all-purpose general practitioner, surgeon, and town conscience. At the same time, Bobby Lowndes--his military records disappeared, being followed by the FBI--mysteriously reappears in his hometown, at Hale's door. Over the ensuing months, the daily dramas Hale faces as he tends to his town and to his partner, Richard, collide with the inexplicable vagaries of life in Willnot. And when a gunshot aimed at Lowndes critically wounds Richard, Hale's world is truly upended.
Firstly, I am not sure exactly how to categorise this novel. For me the blurb was a little misleading as although there is indeed shooting, crime, mystery and dead bodies, this is not really a "crime thriller" in the traditional or presumed sense.
This is a book about a small, introvert town in America. It is a book driven by characters rather than plot- snapshots of ordinary people making sense of the their world. It is a slim volume of a mere 192 pages but memorable and resonating. This isn't really the sort of thing I would usually read, but isn't this the way you discover those stunning hidden gems which stay with you? The effect it had on me was rather like the effect of John Edward Williams' "Stoner"- albeit a much more witty and eccentric kind of story, but I felt I was reading something of an American "classic".
Dr Lama Hale is our central protagonist - general practitioner, surgeon and town conscience. He is intelligent, empathetic, insightful and his narrative combines the suspense, action and intrigue of the plot as he recounts his involvement with the lives of the other townsfolk, the endless calls made upon him and his personal relationships, alongside poetic and lyrical observations of nature and the human condition. The language is taut, stripped down, exacting and immensely powerful.
"Out my west window an orange sun held on, flattening itself crablike against the horizon to gain a few more moments."
There is great contrast in the book. Life in Willnot continues as attempts are made to make sense of the remains discovered and the return of Bobby Lowndes while the news from the rest of America filters through almost unnoticed and definitely unaffecting - "Yesterday in the school cafeteria of a nondescript town in Ohio, a 16 year old pulled a gun from his Fender Champ lunchbox and began firing........In Willnot, Richard and I sat over a late breakfast of biscuits ....the day stretched out ahead of us..." There is something more shocking in this understated commentary and such juxtaposition creates a dark affecting tension.
"Nobody talked about the bodies anymore, or the shooting, but these were tucked away at the back of our minds and hung, if not palpably then patently, in the air we breathed. Willnot was a lake into which rocks had been thrown; mud still swirled."
This is a literary gem. This is the work of a talented author with an absolute gift for language and brevity. For me, I would recommend this book to people who like "Stoner" or Hemingway as well as readers of crime fiction and American Literature.
My thanks to @NoExitPress for a copy of this book in return for an honest review - I'm so pleased to have discovered a new author who to my embarrassment I had not ever come across before, and to have enjoyed something outside my usual selection.
"Willnot"was published by No Exit Press in June 2016 and for more information please go to no exit.co.uk/willnot or follow on Twitter @NoExitPress
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