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Posted: June 28, 2020

James Sallis provided something rare for me

Book Review

By Derryll White

Sallis, James (2019).  Sarah Jane.

“Groucho Marx said he wasn’t crazy about reality but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.’

The chaos of one’s life is an astounding thing when examined.  Sarah Jane Pullman put pen to paper to try and create order from her own life.  If you were to do the same you would likely be surprised, confounded and disturbed perhaps in equal measure.  Sarah Jane was.

How much do we know of what goes on in our own heads, Sallis asks.  Never mind what goes on in anyone else’s.  The scramble of feelings, memory drifting in and out while altering the shape of a presumed reality.

James Sallis has the ability to step out of his maleness and to consider the world from Sarah Jane’s perspective. Nothing jarring or proselytizing, rather a gentle stream of views that are decidedly female. That is hard to do and I appreciate his skill as a writer and storyteller.

Sarah Jane is as dark as any novel gets, not oppressive or foreboding but fingers reaching deep into the soul of the reader. What is life all about? Does it matter?  James Sallis gave me something here that authors seldom do. He had the nerve to ask me, at 74, to examine my own life – not to evaluate or weigh it but to be precise in laying down the words I consist of. Thank you!


            “Ask who benefits, and from whom.”  — Vladimir Lenin

Excerpts from the novel:

SKILLS –  It was at the Barn that I first felt a life taking shape around me.  I learned to cook there, chiefly from self defense since no one else was up for it and what came to the table was often unrecognizable and always horrible.  Took some doing to get the hang of it, but I had a resident supply of experimental subjects.  Cooking proved to be a skill that put me in good stead, as books say, in later life.  I also started to learn to read body language there, figuring out how to look behind what others said and what they thought they were saying, all the shady stuff lurking back there.

STORY – “Every novel, every poem, is the same single story, one we go on telling over and over again.  How we try to become truly human, and never succeed.”

GOVERNMENT – But as he made his way more deeply into that history, with his own experience alongside as template, he understood how governance dragged behind it a relentless desire for ever more control, and for self-preservation.  What was needed wasn’t more governance but protection from its excesses.  Safeguards.  Nay-sayers.  Civil disobedience.  Legal challenges.

REDEMPTION – A lot is made in novels, American novels in particular, it seems, of the notion of redemption.  Something someone’s done lurches up out of the past, or that someone does it as we watch, and the next 160 or 800 pages show the scrambling back to balance.  That’s what my college teachers kept pointing out, anyhow.  Maybe it was a sign of the times, the nation’s common soul flashing guilt it needed to pick up and put down elsewhere, teachers finding redemption in books because that’s what they were looking for.  Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.

LIFE – We’re all percipient witnesses to our own lives, aren’t we?  We look on, watch them happen.

– 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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