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Posted: June 27, 2021

A brilliant piece of noir fiction

Book Review

By Derryll White

Sallis, James (1992).  The Long-Legged Fly.

You must learn to put your distress signals in code. – James Sallis

I had never heard of James Sallis but the knowledgeable owner at Victoria’s ‘Chronicles of Crime Bookstore’ has never steered me wrong. She said that if I liked noir fiction I had to try this author.

The novel is set in New Orleans, with black private investigator Lew Griffin the central character. Griffin is street smart and world weary, a man prone to violence and plagued by alcohol.

Sallis is interested in how people compose their lives, put together the persona they foist on an unsuspecting world. He is equally interested in how all that deconstructs – how brilliant young black activist Corene Davis throws over a post-doctoral college education to instantly become a hooker and soon thereafter a resident of a state psychiatric ward.  How do the personal worlds of any of us come apart, how does reality splinter?

As a reader I feel very connected to James Sallis. He has, I believe, hit on an elemental truth.  One of my one per cent biker friends a long time ago said about me: “Fads and phases, ages and stages!” Sallis claims this is fundamentally correct, we create ourselves, over and over again.

This is an existential novel in the best sense.  It looks at the dark side of life and asks all the questions.  Why should I love?  Why should I care?  Sallis is elemental, simple in the way he uses New Orleans to exhibit both the good and the evil life contains.

Sallis pulls from a classical base – Socrates and Samuel Beckett – to move from the crazies and darkest souls toward the light.  The reader is left feeling that there is something of Lew Griffin in all of us.

This is a complex novel about many things – the act of writing and the act of living being primary.  I cannot remember when I have been so caught up in a novel as I was with ‘The Long-Legged Fly.’  Unquestionably it is a brilliant piece of noir fiction.  Also without question, it brought me to examine my own life, to think on many things.  Quite simply, I loved this work.

“It’s a complex fate, to be an American.” – Henry James.

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Excerpts from the novel:

MEMORIES – It’s never ideas, but simple things, that break our hearts: a falling leaf that plunges us into our own irredeemable past, the memory of a young woman’s ankle, a single smile among unknown faces, or madeleine, a piece of toast.

CREATION – Finally, I guess, it wasn’t that much different from the way we all make up our lives by bits and pieces, a piece of a book here, a song title or lyric there, scraps of people we’ve known, clips from movies, imagining ourselves and living into that image, then going on to another and yet another, improvising our way from day to day through the years we call a life.

BLACK – I’d been on top for a long time now, even clipped off a little corner of the good life for myself.  But it was a lie, a story that didn’t work, a piece of white man’s life, not mine; and now the anger and hatred were coming back.

LIFE – “When I was a kid my mother’d have a new man around the house every few months – wasn’t that often, but seemed like it, you know how it is when you’re a kid – and I kept wondering why she couldn’t just find one she liked and leave those others alone.  Never occurred to me that she didn’t have much to say about it.  That the world wouldn’t be the way she wanted it, the way any of us want it, just because we want it so bad.”

AMERICA – “There’s something centrally wrong here, something hard and unyielding,” she said.  “I feel it in so many of the people I have as patients and I see it in the eyes of people who drive past me in their cars.  It’s l’il wonder so many of you are half crazy.  Not just dotty mind you, but wild-driven.  I don’t see how a foreigner could ever feel comfortable here, could ever fit in.  I don’t see how you do.”

“I haven’t for much of my life, Vicky.  You know that.”

MEMORIES – It’s strange how little is left of our lives once they’re rendered down, once they’ve started becoming history.  A handful of facts, movements, conflicts; that’s all the observer sees.  An uninhabited shell.

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.


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