It’s hard to think of a more perfect title for the collection of James Sallis’ three novels about the reluctant sheriff John Turner than What You Have Left (Walker & Company, 2009), which gathers between two covers Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek, and Salt River. The phrase “What you have left” appears in Cripple Creek and refers to a quote from the violinist Itzhak Perlman who continued performing even after breaking a string: “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” It’s as good an explanation of what art is as I’ve ever heard. But what makes the phrase so suited to Sallis’ trilogy is its ambiguous double meaning. Read one way, it refers to that which remains, which survives. Turned around, it suggests a movement away from something: a memory, a place, a person, maybe even yourself. The tension between these two meanings is the common thread that unifies – and haunts – all three novels.
Former cop, former convict, former psychologist, current recluse. That’s Turner for you, in a nutshell – a shell that is cracked wide open at the start of Cypress Grove when Sheriff Lonnie Bates approaches his cabin and asks his help on a murder case. Alternating chapters, Sallis also offers a counter-narrative that traces Turner’s past, the windy path that led him to murder, a path he would have rather left behind. Hiding anything is impossible; things submerged resurface; history reenters our lives always; the past is always present. It’s a lesson the characters all learn the hard, unpleasant way.
If Cypress Grove is about Time (with a capital T), Cripple Creek is about Family. The hitmen assigned to track down Turner are nothing compared to the emotional rocking he gets when his estranged daughter shows up and helps him with the case. And then there is his growing attachment to Val, a banjo-plucking lawyer, and Miss Emily, the possum who has taken up residence in his home. Families real and surrogate; reunions; separations; goodbyes. In giving up his status as a recluse, Turner must relearn the joyous, painful vulnerability of relationships.
An elegiac conclusion to the series, Salt River, fittingly, is about Death. The mayor’s son in a car crash; a dead body in a stranger’s house; sometimes something from within. Goodbyes come in different ways, but one thing is inevitable: you have to say them at some point, in some way.
Sallis writes with the cadence of an oral historian and the patience of a poet. He’s more likely to spend a paragraph talking about the particularities of a banjo, the resonance of a singer’s voice, or the simple joys of sopping up rabbit stew with bread, than any climactic plot point. For Sallis, it is the little things that make life not only worthwhile, but also lively. With sparse but redolent details, peppered with both humor and sorrow that is all too human, these novels have the feeling of a folk ballad rather than a symphony. Its power lies in understatement, and a deceptive simplicity that is the sign of a truly skilled writer.
I haven’t written down so many quotes from a book in quite some time. I couldn’t possibly copy them all down, and that would ruin the enjoyment of coming across so many of his quiet but profound thoughts and lyrical phrases. Here are just a few of my favorites:
“It’s a question of confidence – confidence and momentum. Back then it never occurred to me that anything could stop me. I know too many things that can stop me now.”
“You don’t use your time, it’ll sure use you.”
“Ambition is a strange rider. Sometimes the horse it picks can’t carry it.”
“Grace be with us all, who are so alone and lost.”
“The body remembers where we’ve been even as the mind turns away.”
“Why is it that so often we begin to define a thing – come to that desire, and to the realization of its uniqueness – only at the very moment it is irrevocably changing and passing from us?”
“Pain as the fulcrum, loss as the lever, to keep their worlds aloft. After a while that can get to be all they feel, all that reassures them they’re alive.”
“Two schools of thought. One has it we’re best off using simple words, plain words. That fancier ones only serve to obscure meaning – wrap it in swaddling clothes. Other side says that takes everything down to the lowest common denominator, that though is complex and if you want to get close to what’s really meant you have to choose words carefully, words that catch up gradations, nuances… You know this shit, Turner.”
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