Sallis Delivers A New Kind
Of Protaganist In Willnot
The Originator Of The Driver And Lew Griffin Series Has Created A New Place That Calls For A New Type Of Hero In The Form Of Lamar Hale, Doctor To A Small Town On The Fringe
By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine
July 29, 2016 — Prolific author and current Phoenician James Sallis is best known for creating hard-boiled crime fiction like the Driver and Lew Griffin series. His latest effort, Willnot, shares many similarities with those works, but it is also a departure for the author. Less a gritty and in your face crime novel, Willnot is more of a complex amalgamation of science fiction, bildungsroman and, yes, crime fiction that challenges the reader’s preconceptions about what it means to be normal and humanity’s stomach for violence.
Much like Sallis’ previous works, Willnot is a technically proficient novel in which the author wastes few words as he creates the town of Willnot, a fictional place that feels because of Sallis’ knack for establishing place. Anyone who’s read Drive or the Lew Griffin novels knows what I am talking about. Sallis has the unique ability to accurately describe his landscapes in a way that truly brings the reader closer to the characters experiences.
In Willnot, Sallis uses his talent for world building to perhaps its greatest effect and creates a fictional town so richly detailed and peopled that it feels no less real than Lew Griffin’s New Orleans or Driver’s Phoenix and Los Angeles.
That’s the thing about Willnot. In some ways, it could be any small town in America — with its greasy spoon diner and everyone knows everyone else atmosphere. However, Sallis takes pains to point out the eccentricities of Willnot and its residents. The town is a hub for outcasts, weirdos and those that don’t fit in. The place has no churches and seems to attract those that live on the fringes.
Sallis peoples this town with a cast of weird characters that, despite their eccentricities, feel real because of the author’s willingness to expose their desires, fears and shortcomings. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is the leading man, Dr. Lamar Hale, who seems like an ordinary small town doctor, if not an overly philosophical one.
Unlike Sallis’ other protagonists, Hale at first seems out of place as the lead character in a crime novel. He’s not a detective or cop or getaway driver; he’s just a small town doctor, albeit an overly curious and philosophical one.
If Hale sounds like a peculiar lead in a crime novel, you are right, but only ‘kind of’ right. In a book like Willnot which is so focused on the characters that live on the fringes of society, that kind of protagonist is necessary.
And, Hale actually checks many of the “noir leading man” boxes, as it were. He is a doctor, with little training in the way of police or detective work. But, as a doctor, he is also inserted right in the middle of the action when a mysterious mass grave is discovered in town. He’s also a naturally inquisitive mind with a knack for figuring out what is ailing people, both figuratively and literally, which comes in handy when the bodies start to pile up.
Sallis also endows Hale with a certain science-fictiony power, if you will, that gives him the ability, somewhat at random, to experience the world through others eyes and inhabit their minds. It is a fairly ingenious nod to the life of a medical practitioner, who often literally sees inside a patient's body.
Hale also functions as an even-tempered ear to bend for the locals. That puts him in high standing in a town that has no churches and also puts him in a unique position to get to the bottom of the mysterious violence plaguing his town as everyone, it seems, trusts Hale to keep their secrets.
At times, the novel reads like a love letter to literature more than anything else. While the central tension of the book centers on mysterious dead bodies, AWOL marines and chaotic violence, Sallis uses those conflicts to give ruminate on the human condition, and he often does that by hearkening back to classic pieces like Albert Camus’ Return to Tipasa. Hale, the son of a science fiction author disappointed that his son settled and became a doctor, is well versed in literature and often hearkens back to his favorite passages when ruminating on just what the hell is going on in Willnot, in the world.
And Hale’s partner Richard is a driven and frustrated English teacher whose love and humor humanizes and grounds Hale as the character is prone to drift off into dreams or philosophical thought.
Despite this, at its heart, Willnot is still a crime novel. It just goes about defining its central crime in a different way than a by the numbers noir novel. Sallis delves deep into the lives of each of his characters in search of the root of the crime and violence that pepper the book and ends up addressing a range of topics from strained familial relationships to coping with mortality to the ethics of war.
On the surface, Willnot has everything you look for in standard crime fiction, including a pit full of bodies, secretive FBI investigations, and suspicious characters with violent pasts. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sallis uses the structure of the crime novel as a jumping off point but creates a story that goes beyond the genre in that solving the crime is not the ultimate resolution in Willnot. Rather, Sallis uses the murders as a device to move along a plot that is far more focused on the interconnectedness between violence and the human condition. Sallis through Hale is not attempting to solve any murders, he is trying to understand why murders happen.
Willnot is not a, ‘by the numbers’ crime novel, and the conclusion to the novel may leave some readers wanting more. However, that’s not a bad thing. In Willnot, readers will find a novel that transverses the genre's tropes without becoming beholden to them, and the result is gratifying, and supremely challenging, novel about what it means to exist in modernity with all of its violence, flaws, beauty and joy.