The Killer is Dying by James Sallis – review

The first thing one perceives on reading the first pages of James Sallis’ new novel is the literal accuracy of the title: The man who calls himself Christian is a contract killer, a Vietnam vet now terminally ill, on his last job. A few pages later, something goes awry as the man he has been watching, who he has been hired to kill, is suddenly shot – – by someone else. And Christian is not sure how he feels about that.

The second character to whom the reader is introduced is Jimmie, a precocious youngster who has unexpectedly had to develop some strong survival skills when he is abandoned by his parents. Suddenly, and bizarrely, Jimmie begins having vivid dreams. The startling thing about this, other than the oddity of his dreaming at all when he was previously unaware of having ever done so in the past, is that the dreams are apparently Christian’s. And that’s just the beginning. A dying killer, a philosophizing teenager, a cop whose wife is gravely ill; disparate lives which only tangentially intersect, with the p.o.v. switching among them, which was briefly disorienting to this reader, but all to fascinating effect.

There are small master strokes with pitch-perfect thumbnail sketches, several scenes analogizing the actions of birds to those of humans. This is a book peopled by characters who are dead or dying and those they leave behind. But it is not maudlin, rather, thought-provoking. It is also full of existential musings: “The world speaks to us in so many languages . . . and we understand so few . . . He was thinking how kids back in school, kids these days too he was sure, always talked about being bored, and how he could never understand that. The way wind moved in the trees, the sheen of sunlight on glass or steel, a fly’s wings – – everything was of interest. You just had to pay attention, you just had to look.”

James Sallis, the author of over two dozen volumes, fiction and non-fiction alike, has again produced a novel which captured me completely. When I read and reviewed one of his earlier books, “Salt River,” I wrote “Mr. Sallis’ spare prose is wonderful, and the novel a deeply affecting one.” Those words are just as true for this book, and it is, obviously, highly recommended.

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Gloria Feit

The Feit's reviews appear in numerous media outlets.

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