Tuesday, February 10, 2015

a new author for me: James Sallis -- The Long-Legged Fly

Walker and Company, 2001
originally published 1992
200 pp


Well now here is something entirely different -- rather than having an entire series follow a main character's arc, James Sallis manages to put it into one book.  There are five books which follow this one in his Lew Griffin series which I haven't read, but The Long-Legged Fly covers a span of time from 1964 through 1990.

Set in New Orleans, each section of  The Long-Legged Fly centers around Griffin's search for someone who is lost.  Taken as a whole, one could argue that Griffin is also searching for himself in this book.  Who is this Lew Griffin exactly? When we first meet Griffin, he's hell-bent on vengeance and actually kills a man before he goes back to settle into his office where we discover he's a PI  who is friends with a local cop -- pretty much standard pulp-fiction fare.  Then another surprise -- he hits the skids and comes back as a collector for a loan outfit, spending time in a halfway house after weeks of detox for his alcohol problem.  At some point he becomes interested in writing and changes his life again, becoming the author of a Cajun detective series,  until there's a big twist at the end where just who is actually doing the narrating becomes a central question that forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything he or she has just read.

As New Orleans changes over the years, so too does Lew Griffin.  According to the chronology, the book begins when he is twenty-four.  He is asked by a militant group to find a missing activist who got on a plane in New York and was never seen again. This part of the book has a lot of focus on racial identity, which is a theme carried throughout the novel, with references to early works of Chester Himes and George S. Schuyler (among others), and black heritage, including history and the blues which the author will later note was
"a way of letting you get outside -- outside the sixteen or eighteen 18 hours you had to work every day, outside where you lived and what your children had to look forward to, outside the way you just plain hurt all the time." 
 In the second part, Griffin (now age 30 but feeling "old and tired")  is tasked with finding the "shy" daughter of a couple from Mississipi, who had been gone for three weeks. New Orleans, her parents say, is where she'd been talking about going and that she was talking about staying with an actress with Willona.  It will be tough -- as Griffin tells them,
"...the city doesn't much care about any of us individually, let alone a sixteen year-old girl from Clarksdale." 
It's also in part two where we discover that Lew had served in the military as an MP and had a penchant for "busting heads."  1984 comes along and we find Griffin in a hospital doing detox after he had hit bottom -- committed by the court.  He is in the care of a British nurse with whom he falls in love; through her he feels "new worlds opening within him" that he knew were always there but he could never reach. While staying at a halfway house he meets someone whose life is cut short by gang violence in the inner city, but not before Griffin had agreed to find the man's missing sister.  Six years later, things have really turned around for Lew; he's become a successful detective novelist, a part-time teacher,  and life is good -- up until the day he gets a call about another missing person, this time someone he knows very well. Once more its time time to take stock -- and reflect.

Clearly, this is no ordinary man and Griffin is definitely not the stock PI of pulp fiction. There is a certain rich interplay of elements in this book that makes it unlike any other in this genre. First, there's New Orleans, a city that, like Lew, reinvents itself while keeping its history intact; there's also an abundance of literary references and references to local blues artists and their work.  Griffin has to work through a lifetime of pain and, as noted on the back-cover blurb, he fears "becoming as lost as the frail identities he is trying to recover."  I genuinely appreciate an author who allows his or her characters to discover themselves around a plotline rather than making the plot the central focus of a novel -- and since I prefer understanding people and why they do what they do in a given situation,  I've always felt a plot should be secondary with characters first.  Then again, not everyone reads like I do, so readers looking for a fast-action, pulpy PI novel will definitely not find it here. Readers who also prefer a strictly linear chronology may also not care for this one, but for me, The Long-Legged Fly  is something completely out of the ordinary.  Recommended with absolutely no qualms whatsoever, but mainly to readers who are much more into fullness of character rather than straight-up action.

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