The success of the movie Drive has brought new attention to James Sallis' writing, which is a good thing, because as good as the pulpy Fifties-style narrative drive of Drive was, Sallis is a versatile writer whose strongest talent may be his subtlety, the way he can build a narrative through a circling oblique approach which reveals more on each circle, opening up ideas and observations which have been planted at earlier stages.
Willnot does exactly that, and it's so skillfully done the reader might forget that this is, in genre terms still a crime novel, though it's never really obvious what the actual crime might be. Lamar Hale is a doctor in the small town of Willnot, an oasis for eccentrics, as most small towns are when you look closely enough. It seems to be somewhere we you live among 'the squirrel eaters' but you're never quite sure where, and as the story begins, a pile of bodies are uncovered in a gravel pit outside of town.
Soon the FBI is on the scene, but not interested in the bodies as much as in the whereabouts of Bobby Lowndes, a troubled boy Lamar had tried to help, and who is AWOL from his job as a sniper in the military. Clever readers might suspect the stories are related, but that's not necessarily so, and events proceed in a small-town pace that intersects repeatedly with the activity of small town life, which, as a doctor, puts Lamar right in the centre.
Really, however, this is a story about belonging, and about aging. Lamar was first brought to Willnot by his father, a peripatetic pulp science fiction writer--which gives Sallis an opportunity to inject little stories about the greats from the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Stugeon, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm and the like, and their perceptions of our reality in a time when reality seemed to be changing quickly. Lamar also spent a year in a coma when he was a child, out of which he awoke to see, in some cloudy ways, the future: bits of life presented as if through the imagination of an sf writer. The book is about aging, and the passage of time, but it's also, like sf, about the way the past and the future are really just parts of our present, because our present is what we have, and our present will not (so to speak) escape the memories and anticipations we bring to it.
Lamar is also living with his male partner, another bit of small town life which makes little difference one way or the other, except that Richard is a committed teacher, struggling to tread water under the tidal wave of modern education. Like Lamar's medical practice, it is something that puts him into the middle of small town life, leaving him opportunity to influence at least of his neighbours on their way. Not all of whom are snipers returned to their own pasts to escape their own futures.
This is a richly quilted collage of quiet writing which deftly puts you into Lamar's slow-paced point of view, and reminds you gently to take his history into account as you are contemplating the scene. It ends much as it began, in a moment of violence or its aftermath, and picks up its vision and it's purpose from there. It's a wonderfully understated piece of writing, one where every word seems to count, in an almost offhandedly casual way. Wonderful.
Willnot by James Sallis
No Exit Press, £7.99, ISBN 9781843446699
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)