Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Book: The Killer is Dying, by James Sallis (2011)

The latest novel from James Sallis – who will be receiving plenty of deserved attention when the award-winning adaptation of his book Drive opens shortly – tracks three individuals adrift in Arizona. Christian, the aging assassin of the title, in town to do a job only to get beaten to the punch. Sayles, the detective assigned to the case, treating the investigation as a respite from a personal life that is falling apart. And Jimmie, a young boy abandoned by his parents and unseen by nearly everyone, who for some reason is experiencing Christian’s dreams.

As a crime story Killer is lean and involving. As a portrait of Phoenix, a sprawling city of brownouts that’s all cracks and no sidewalk, it’s without peer. But it’s primarily a strange yet compelling book about connections, the overall lack of them and the ultimate severing of the few that matter. The imminent death of Sayles’s wife might seem one grim specter too many but Sallis finds ways to sidle up on the subject, as when Sayles reads hospice brochures. “Declining years. Family ties. Waning faculties. Terminal care. Parades of word pairs that reminded him of comedy teams, one straight man earnest as the day is long, one innocent who just never quite gets it.” The magic realist element of Jimmie’s subconscious link to Christian makes emotional but not narrative sense; there’s no reason for Jimmie to be present other than to illuminate the story’s larger issues. Yet it works:

All our lives are a going-away. Maybe we have to pretend that we’re going toward something, hang the image there in the air ahead. A better, more equitable world. Life everlasting in a place that looks like Scottsdale only better. A desert oasis with seventeen virgins. Because we can’t bear the thought that this is all there is. All there was.

The pieces don’t fit into a seamless whole. They suggest one, and that’s enough. Like all Sallis books The Killer is Dying is spare and not so much written as composed. It reads like a poem and has that kind of impact as well.