James Sallis: Lew Griffith and the Blues

Reading a James Sallis crime novel is like a slow burn with someone for whom one has great respect, but have never quite been able to hit it off; yet, one keeps coming back, tempting fate or whatever other strange gods inhabit the wastelands of our modernity, realizing that this is a love affair of the mind not of the heart, one that is difficult to measure much less to analyze, and is part and partial of the darker traces that inhabit both time and memory, fantasy and dream. One realizes after reading such works that one’s own identity is built out of dark and imponderable traces, shifting realities, fragments, and the detritus of other people’s lives; that the illusion of selfhood and subjectivity is just that: an illusion; that hidden behind the folds of flesh and blood, under the physical semblance of lived life is the haunting absence of something else, something indefinable, something strange and away that has for all too long been hurting, hurting like some broken thing in the night.

In his series about an African American Detective, Lew Griffith, Sallis stated – as if almost surprised at himself: “I didn’t elect to write a novel from an African-American’s viewpoint. I began writing, as I always do, from a single image, a sense of a character, trying to draw this shadowy person out. I was many pages into  The Long-Legged Fly … before I realized that Lew was African-American. So I went back and started over” (Garth Cartwright).

Lew Griffith – the unlikely hero of this dark tale, and the main character in Sallis’s earmark noir about the menacing streets of New Orleans is a tough yet sympathetic character, a man who carries the scars of other peoples troubles like a soul-eater whose job is never done, who is as lost as the victims he seeks to defend or meet out justice for. A street philosopher of the first order Lew understands that a human being is more than just the hard cold facts of ones daily trek through existence. Underneath the veneer we all inhabit a darkness of solitude and despair from which each of us must in our own private struggles seek either solace or reprieve:

“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.”

The Long-Legged Fly is a novel of lost souls, troubled identities, of identities pared down to the bone. It’s a secret history of American Identity caught in the web of an era when identity was shifting, scrambled, and ill-defined, almost paranoiac; a time when civil-rights turmoil was surfacing below the threshold of social and political worlds. Lew Griffin in not so much interested in the larger picture, of conveying an understanding of the greater canvas of our American Atrocity as he is of its effects on the particular, the singular inhabitants of one of its key cities, New Orleans.

In the opening sequence a year has passed since the fatal shooting of John F. Kennedy, when the Civil Rights Act had barely been signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. The beginning of the supposed Great Society when social reform and racial injustice was going to be eliminated from the face of the earth. A promising era that brought us the War on Poverty. Into this strange world comes Lew Griffin, a sort of latter day knight of the African Americans, a man with his own problems and failings, but also a man who – even if lost among the semblances, seemed to keep heading in the right direction, trying over and over to right the wrongs and injustices around him.

There is a secret history of the south yet to be written that will connect us to those dark and terrible violences that have over the course of American History come to haunt us all. I speak of racism and its effects and affects on the American psyche – or, should we rather say, identity? Since the idea of some great collective soul or psyche seems both superficial and having no bearing on the troubling aspects of this history. Lew discovers the impenetrableness of this dark relation in his relationship with a young white woman, Vicky, a nurse whose uniform attends this strange truth:

“There’s something about all that white, the way it barely contains a woman, its message of fetching innocence and concealment, that reminds us how much we remain impenetrable mysteries to one another. We circle one another, from time to time drawing closer, more often moving apart, just as we circle our own confused, conflicting feelings” (140).

Lew rides this a little further relating a small history of the Blues he’s watching on a documentary series on TV. The Blues he tells us encapsulates this hurt, the dark secret that we still are all in denial of, and that Blues music, guitar, and the likes of Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Robert Johnson, and so many other great African American singers brought to light in their songs and tempos. As one of the singers relates in an interview: “Because the slave could not say what he meant … he said something else. Soon he was saying all sorts of things he didn’t mean. We’d call it dissembling. But what he did mean, that was the blues” (141). In one of the segments of the documentary a commentator relates what “Big Joe Williams” had to say:

…all these young guys have it wrong. They were trying to get inside the blues, he said, when what the blues was, was a way of letting you get outside – outside the sixteen or eighteen hours you had to work every day, outside where you lived and what you and your children hat to look forward to, outside the way you just plain hurt all the time (141).

It was this hurt that follows Lew around moment by moment like an old dog that want die but just keeps on moaning its mournful song. Yet, it is this mournful hurt that drives Lew, that spurs him own to right all the injustices within his purview even if it means a turn toward the vigilante side of justice as portrayed in the opening sequence of the novel itself.

After the opening sequence we find Lew puzzling over the schizophrenic breakdown of a young woman Corine Davis, an activist who suddenly disappeared one day, and as suddenly reappeared in a local asylum outside New Orleans, Lew ponders just what it is that makes up the life of such a being:

…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 (49).

Just like a scrapbook found on a garbage heap at the county dump we discover our own lives to have been nothing more than the flotsam and jetsam of a fractured world set to the tempo of some old sad and lonely song sung by the likes of  Tom Russell and Tom Waits, or Emmylou Harris and Gretchen Peters. It’s the hidden life of the American working class in these tales and songs that means something, something beyond the failure, loss, and brokenness of the depleted images and novelistic effects. It’s what helps us survive, get on with our lives, get up in the morning and reach for another first chance at hope, even if we know hope is hard to come by or doesn’t even exist in our day to day vocabulary. It’s this fatal optimism, the optimism of a screwball clown or loser that follows a path with heart that ultimately leads down that dark alley where despair is the only guest that touches noir in its extremities.

Sallis himself never intended this first book to be followed up by five more sequels. In fact even this first novel was intended as a short story that just got away from him.2 Drifting among the detritus of differing time periods the protagonist Lew Griffin sifts time and memory for the fragments of a life gone sour: his own. But not much will help him in that accord, life’s been tough on this old PI; or, maybe we should say that not life, but death had wandered through his life too many times and left a bad taste in his mouth. Once in a while he’ll come on a place of memory, a place where happy times formerly resided like snapshots from some alien history; and, like marriage it brought fond memories to Lew of “chicken sandwiches and extra chips”, a nice afternoon in the sun, soft kisses and a honeymoon.  Yet, even this, like most honeymoons would not last, and was only the beginning of a slow and steady decline. Craig McDonald remarks: “…in all of Sallis’ works, there is the sad recognition that too often we recognize our moments of happiness only in retrospect— moved to do so by present circumstances we similarly don’t yet recognize as comfortable, and won’t, until they, too, have slipped into the past” (247).

As Lew relates it toward the end: “It’s never ideas, but the 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, a madeleine, a piece of toast” (190). In the last sequence of this novel Lew is tasked with finding his own son, David Griffith, who has vanished off the radar between France and New York. At the end of a long trail Lew realizes he’ll never discover the truth about his son’s disappearance, and that like one of the characters in his own novel (Lew having become a popular novelist of crime novels), he remarks:

The news my Cajun had brought the old man in the bar was that his son was dead, needlessly stupidly dead, and I knew that more than ever before I was writing close to my life, that the old man’s bottle and mute acceptance were my own, that I would not see David again. I am not a man much given to the mystic or ineffable, but sitting there that night in the darkness like a cat, with the fruity smells of gin and a murmur of wind from outside, I knew. And I have been right. (196-197)

We’ve all known that strangeness, that something in excess, intangible that touches us from the realm of the Real, that haunts us and follows us down the lonely nights of our lives like a difficult passage from some dark poem that keeps biting at our minds, that keeps tugging at our heart like something we’ve all forgotten or misplaced, some impossible object that keeps coming back day after day troubling us with its incessant thoughts offering us not so much solace as the broken promise of our own unfulfilled lives. Despair comes in many guises. Life, too.

1. James Sallis. The Long-Legged Fly. (Carroll and Graf, 1992)

2. McDonald, Craig (2011-07-29). Rogue Males.

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