If you check my reading list, I had originally intended to move from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice directly to Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But after finishing a ramble through England in the early 1800’s, I wanted a change of pace before returning. So, I jumped ahead on the list and picked up James Sallis’ What You Have Left.
In reality, this is not one book, but three: Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek, and Salt Water, published in 2003, 2006, and 2007, respectively. I only say that because it makes me feel a bit better about being behind schedule on my reading list.
Sallis will be most familiar to those who have seen the movie Drive (which I am not recommending; it’s very violent and has some sexual content). On the surface, this trilogy of books bears very little similarity to that film; the setting is different, the conflict is less clearly defined and much less central to the tale, the preoccupations of the protagonists are very different. But at their core, both the film and the trilogy address the some similar circumstances: a man set apart from civilization, dragged into a conflict he doesn’t want, and compelled to do violent and questionable things in order to resolve that conflict for the safety of those he cares about.
It’s hard to summarize the plot of the Turner trilogy, because the plot felt so unimportant to the work as a whole. A quick summary would be that John Turner, a former policeman, retired therapist, and ex-convict, is asked to help solve a murder in the tiny community near his cabin. He agrees to help, and over the rest of the first book and throughout the next two, grows more closely knit with his little community, develops a better understanding of his own past, and solves the few crimes that come across his desk. In the second book, he’s drawn by accident and happenstance into a violent confrontation with organized crime, and his loved ones suffer the consequences. By the end of the third book, he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness (probably cancer), he’s reunited with his long-lost daughter, and his community has begun a rapid decline into obsolescence.
A few thoughts:
Most reviewers praise Sallis’ language. One reviewer calls his third book, “A sweet song of the South from a crime novelist with the ear of a poet.” Another praises his “lean, sinewy prose.” They’re not wrong. Sallis is a wordsmith, and the lack of a clear, compelling, central conflict is easily overlooked once one realizes what he brings to the table: beautiful prose and an honest treatment of his character’s nihilistic worldview.
I said, as with Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, “maybe read this book.” In this case, I qualified it not as a consequence of the content, but as a consequence of the book’s character and characters. I think many–especially those enthralled with the electronic cool of Drive, or those who come in the mood for a Southern gothic crime novel–will find that What You Have Left is not what they are looking for. Instead, it is a slow, thoughtful, meandering exploration of life’s apparent meaninglessness and fragility. John Turner doesn’t read, at least to me, as a clear hero (or anti-hero) but rather as a selfish and self-important bore. The first person narration only underscores this sense, and there were several instances where I wished the protagonist would just stop trying to impress the reader with his “world-weary and world-wise” observations. But then, spend an afternoon with someone who views the world like John Turner does, and you’ll probably feel the same way.
As I said above, I think Sallis did a fantastic job creating a self-righteous nihilist, and there’s much for a Christian reader to consider in this book. From my (admittedly limited) perspective, I think self-righteous nihilism is a very sensible philosophy for an atheist, and in What You Have Left, one gets the chance to better grasp what drives those with such a worldview: their complete disenchantment with the world and its inhabitants, and their insistence on doing what they feel is the right thing regardless of the consequences. In many ways, my own theological convictions allow for significant agreement, but I have a joyful hope that John Turner will not allow himself.
A few quotes:
“Pleased to have you, Detective.”
“Just Turner. I haven’t been a detective for a long time.”
“Hope you’re not telling us you forget how,” Bates said.
“No. What happens is, you stop believing it matters.”
“Nothing. Something. Me?” She smiled. “I wanted to, anyway. Do we ever, really?”
“If we don’t—if we can’t—nothing else makes much sense, does it?”
Most investigations are little more than paint by the numbers. You ask a string of questions in the proper order, when they don’t get answered you ask them again, sooner or later you find your way to the husband or wife, spurned boy-or girlfriend, business partner, parent, younger brother, gardener, eccentric uncle, jealous neighbor.
What she did was to her the most important thing in the world. I think deep down it may have been the only thing she really cared about. A lot of people who are outstanding at what they do seem to be like that. The rest of us look on, at once admiring and critical; vaguely ashamed of ourselves and our wayward lives.
Thing about cell phones is you can’t slam the receiver down.
As a counselor, of course, I’d have been quick to point out that we always make our choices, and that not choosing was as much a choice as any other. Such homilies are, as much as anything else, the reason I’d quit. It’s too easy once you learn the tricks. You start off believing that you’re discovering a way of seeing the world clearly, but you’re really only learning a language— a dangerous language whose very narrowness fools you into believing you understand why people do the things they do. But we don’t. We understand so little of anything.
As I rode back toward home, along the river for a time before swinging inland, I watched a sky like old-time saddle shoes: horizon bright right up to the curving border where all went suddenly dark. It had been a season for storms. I remembered my grandfather’s storm cellar, bare earthen walls, doors thick as tables with brackets into which you’d swing a two-by-four to close them, wood shelves sagging beneath the weight of water jugs, canned food, lanterns, and fuel. We’d all go down in there as the winds began, sit listening to them howl. As a kid I always expected the world to be new, fresh, changed all for the better, when we came back up. By the time I was ten or so we had stopped joining Grandad and his new family in the cellar, rode out the winds like modern folk.
Altruism gets handed to me, I’m automatically peeling back the label, looking to see what’s underneath.
So, maybe read What You Have Left, but do so knowing that you’re not getting a crime novel, and you’re not getting Drive. But you are getting a fairly interesting, fairly well-written investigation of the world as it is through the eyes of someone who can’t find any hope.