Turner Returns

An ex-cop from Memphis? The name's John Turner. The scene of the crimes: a small Southern town.

Dolly Grunwald, from the nursing home in town . . . she's sure she's being poisoned.

Sherri Anne, a girl about town . . . she's been seen with the Strump boy, a "no 'count."

The abandoned military base, just outside of town . . . late nights, some are swearing they see strange blue lights.

And Leland Luckett . . . he was minding his own business, driving along, when a buzzard flew into the windshield of his new Honda and the bird got stuck there and what's the town sheriff going to do about it?

Deal with it. As the sheriff does in the case of Dolly Grunwald, Sherri Anne, and those strange blue lights outside of town. It's Sheriff John Turner's job to deal with it in Salt River (Walker & Company) by novelist James Sallis. And what's more . . . >>>

When Salt River opens, Billy Bates has crashed the Buick Regal he was driving into the City Hall of this Southern town, and Billy's been taken to a hospital in nearby Memphis. Turner's friend Eldon Brown, a musician, is back on the scene, and he needs Turner's help. So does Jed Baxter, a detective from Texas who's looking for Brown, because Brown's wanted for questioning in the case of a Fort Worth murder. And Isaiah Stillman, who lives along with several other "refugees" from society in an old hunting camp a couple hours away . . . he could use a kind word. Stillman's friend Merle was on his way to see him when Merle was murdered in Memphis. Would Turner mind hearing from Stillman?

No, he would not mind. It's Turner's business to listen, as it was when he served as a practicing psychotherapist . . . after he served in Vietnam, after he served as a homicide detective in Memphis, after he hit "the streets" for a time, and after he served 19 months in prison — key events, then, in the life of John Turner, and for details of those events, see Sallis' two previous Turner novels, Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. But for now, consider again Salt River, because the story's just started. And by page 146, when Salt River ends:

Billy Bates' employer, "Miss" Augusta Charley — a woman on the far side of 80 who lives alone in a dilapidated plantation house — has been left nearly for dead, her place ransacked. Billy Bates' wife, Milly, has been kidnapped and nearly killed in a car accident. Troy Geldin (of Brooklyn, New York) has confessed to some low crimes (but not the high crime of murder). And Lorenzo Harmon (of St. Louis) — with his hand in the numbers racket, off-book gambling, unsecured loans, escort services, and strong-man security — is about to be visited by Lonnie Bates (the town's former sheriff and Billy's father). He's got a surprise gift for Harmon, but the barking dog that Red Wilson's been complaining about has what's worse for John Turner: the body of a 6-year-old boy, dead for days and lodged inside the walls of a house belonging to Bob Vander, who, in turn, winds up dead inside a prison clothes dryer.

That's just some — believe it or not, not all — of what takes place in this latest novel by Sallis, a Helena, Arkansas, native who's built a popular following and a literary reputation on his numerous novels, short stories, poetry, biography, criticism, and translations. He's also a trained respiratory therapist and acting musician (guitar, French horn, fiddle, sitar, and dobro) in Phoenix, where he now lives.

He's got a good ear — whether by training or talent. You can hear it in Salt River's clipped, convincing, super-low-key dialogue. And he's got a good eye for the evil men do. You can see that evil operating everywhere you look. But suspense in Salt River plays only a part. So, what is going on?

A packed cast of characters, for one thing, and it can make matters plenty complicated for readers. For another thing: a heavy dependency on John Turner's back story, including repeated references to his murdered girlfriend Val, his daughter in Seattle, J.T., and his time as a ther-apist after doing time as a prisoner — references to make matters to readers new to John Turner even more complicated. Turner's ruminations on our capacity for self-understanding — on the roles we play, on the choices we make, on the chances we take — register, however, plain if not always so simple. As in:

"Like nations, individuals come to be ruled by their self-narrative, narratives that accrue from failures as much as from success, and that harden over time into images the individual believes unassailable. Identity and symbology fuse. And threats when they come aren't merely physical, they're ontological, challenging the narrative itself, suggesting that it may be false. They strike at the individual's very identity. The narrative has become an objective in its own right — one that must be reclaimed at all costs."

And yes, maybe Turner's right. Or maybe James Sallis speaking through John Turner is right. And maybe Turner finds some peace of mind at the conclusion of Salt River. But try telling any of this to Leland Luckett. He's got more on his hands than symbology, ontology, and what to do with his self-narrative. He's got a damn buzzard stuck in his windshield. He'd appreciate the sheriff's help.

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