Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $26 (and worth every penny)
What if James Sallis wrote a long poem (for he is a poet) and called it “Willnot”? I think he did, and then he did.
“Willnot” is one of the most beautiful crime stories I’ve read. To be fair, it isn’t a traditional crime story. “Willnot” follows the life of Dr. Lamar Hale in the town of Willnot. Through his small-town doctor eyes, we meet a variety of town folk, including his life partner, Richard, a high school teacher. Their stories are mostly gentle and interesting. Even Bobby, the mysterious military deserter? sniper? assassin? who shows up in the doctor’s office just to say hi, is gentle with the doctor. The doctor treated him as a child, and they shared a common experience: both of them had been in comas as children. Maybe both have seen what is on the other side of the mortal fabric while there, wherever “there” is. Certainly, the doctor believes he has seen prophetic visions of other lives and experiences since then.
But what of crimes and bodies? “Willnot” begins with the uncovering of a mass grave. Periodically, tidbits are dropped to show that the investigation is continuing. Then there is Bobby and the police alerts that appear in his wake, not to mention the appearance of a federal agent who gently haunts the town. There are bodies (not necessarily dead) we view because Lamar IS a doctor. Sallis gives us vignettes of Lamar’s patients’ lives. So what if most of the book is about Lamar’s practice and his relationship with Richard instead of the crimes.
When something of a violent nature does happen, it is secondary to the philosophical discursion and observant peeks into other lives that make up the book.
Here are some of Sallis’ poetic thoughts:
Richard doesn’t see things the way others do. He’s a teacher. ‘Yeah, that’s us,’ he said not long after we met, ‘a cliché from old Westerns. Doc and the schoolmarm. Well, except for the marm part.’
‘Some nights I can feel myself going away, hissing or leaking out of my own body, like gas. Hear my teeth rattling like dice in a cup.’
Our favorite time of day, light slowly fading but not yet forgone, time itself slowing, the moment like a held breath.
A recurrent fantasy from childhood, before the coma. I think: That the world was rebuilt each time I slept. Sure that if I listened hard in the darkness I’d be able to hear carpenters at work, masons grunting as they hoisted stone, the stage manager creaking up ladder steps to hang the moon or sun.
Do not go gentle into that good night, poet Dylan Thomas said. These characters of “Willnot” will not; they will stay for awhile, even after the story has ended.
For his shining prose and especially for the questions he never answers — contrary to what you desire in a traditional crime book — an MBTB star!