“Most fiction, maybe all of it, from the grandest tales to the commonplace, was about things that were missing. Family, lovers, sustenance, peace, ideals. At the heart of those stories were emptinesses, yearnings, hollows that couldn’t be filled—as though bereavement were hardwired into mankind.”
It is nearly impossible to try to describe the power of James Sallis’s writing to someone who has never read any of his books or who has never experienced a “mystery” which is also a breathtaking and complete literary experience. I was so overwhelmed by this heart-stopping novel, his best one yet, that I had to stop in the middle for a breather overnight, and I am still having difficulty coming back to earth to write this review. Though the novel “out-noirs” almost every “noir” novel I have ever imagined with its sad and desperate characters trying to cope with the miseries fate has dealt them, Sallis’s characters never expect life to be any different. All they want is to be able to cope with the here and now. As Sayles, one of the police investigators, muses, “So many stories come down to good and evil, guy in the white hat and guy in the black, hawk and dove, this struggle between them, like one will win. You saw and read and heard that long enough, you started to believe it, started to think like that. But the bad stuff is right there with you, always.” It is only when the characters are able to share on some level, however limited, that they begin to feel a part of humanity, even a humanity into which “bereavement” is “hardwired,” as Christian says in the opening quotation.
Set in Phoenix, The Killer is Dying is an impressionistic novel focusing on three main characters, and the reader comes to know these characters through a series of descriptive episodes in which the characters are not initially identified. Gradually, one comes to recognize the different points of view from references to details connected with a particular character. In a literary tour de force, none of these characters are associated directly with each other. They live parallel, not interconnected lives, illustrating stylistically the solitary nature of their lives.
The first character, Christian, is a Vietnam vet, a former medic who has been a contract killer for many years. Hired to kill John Rankin, “nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored,” he stakes out the man, then discovers, to his fury, that some other assassin has made the hit – and botched it. His goal becomes that of identifying the other hitman and completing the job for which he has been hired, but time is short: Christian is dying.
The second character, Jimmie Kostof, is all alone – a thirteen-year-old who has fallen through the cracks. His mentally ill mother disappeared more than a year ago, and his father, shortly afterward. Incredibly resilient, he is now actively buying and selling unusual items via computer to raise enough money to stay alive without being discovered by the authorities. Though he never in the past had dreams that he could remember, Jimmie now has nightmares of almost paralyzing intensity. He has somehow tapped into the dreams of Christian, the killer.
Dale Sayles, a police investigator, who has left his card in the hospital room of wounded accountant John Rankin, is also alone. His wife Josie, who is dying a lingering death, has disappeared, leaving a note explaining that she has gone to an unnamed hospice: “I’m not a survivor, Dale. I’ve known that all along.” She wants time alone but promises to contact him.
As Sallis develops his themes by having his three main characters live their separate lives, he creates enormous sympathy for them. Jimmie has discovered that if he visits a local nursing home on Fridays and pretends to be a relative of a patient, that he can get a good, home-cooked meal. Sayles and his partner have never shared anything about their lives, and as they try to identify the hitman of John Rankin, they begin to learn about each other, to their mutual benefit. Even the killer, Christian, inspires some sympathy because he had so much potential before Vietnam, and he himself recognizes that he is sick both emotionally and physically. Though some minimal contact among these three characters does develop at the end of the novel, it is a glancing contact which barely registers.
Sallis includes more information in fewer words than almost any other writer I have ever found. His compressed prose is on the level shown by Hemingway in his short stories, and his ability to evoke emotions is superior. Every word and every image count here, and his descriptions are memorably unique. A man’s “belt buckle [was] recently let out a couple of notches so that the old half-circle hoofprints showed.” Rankin, “full face, [looked] bland and characterless, as though he’d just gotten up from a chair and left his personality behind.” The passengers on a bus are referred to as “Jonahs.” Sayles, after a sleepless night, believes that “the light…out there somewhere in the night, [is] feeling its way blindly toward him.” The books that Jimmie reads the elderly reflect the novel’s themes, and even a TV program remembered by the killer carries a powerful message without calling attention to itself. As Sayles comments, “Strength was not about overcoming things. Strength was about accepting them.” And, of course, moving on. Powerful, thoughtful, and often heart-breaking, the novel reflects a kind of honesty that is rare in fiction.
ALSO by James Sallis: DRIVE, DRIVEN (the sequel to DRIVE), and WHAT YOU HAVE LEFT, which consists of all three books in the John Turner Trilogy: Cyprus Grove, Cripple Creek, and Salt River. Also, OTHERS OF MY KIND, WILLNOT
Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Marshall J. Grier, is from http://www.amazon.co.uk
Dale Sayles, the police investigator, lives near Camelback Mountain in Phoenix: http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com
One of the books that Jimmie reads is John Collier’s His Monkey Wife: http://www.amazon.com
A TV program about the stray dogs in Moscow which have learned to “commute” to the city from the suburbs, on their own, features in this novel and has symbolic significance. Here is the story and the photo above: http://www.thefeaturedcreature.com