James Sallis, “Sarah Jane”

Start to finish, Sarah Jane is seductive and tantalizing. It’s also (wonderfully) disorienting.

First line: “My name is Pretty, but I’m not.”

Second line: “Haven’t been, won’t be.”

In the second paragraph, the narrator gives us her true given name—Sarah Jane Pullman. “Kids at school call me Squeaky. At church I’m mostly S.J. or (as Daddy’s girl, a real yuck for the old guys in their shiny-butt suits standing by the Sunday School door having a cigarette) I’m junior. Seems like everyone I know calls me something different.”

And in the third paragraph, James Sallis upends us:

“I wrote all of the above in a diary when I was seven.”

We are looking back. Time will shift. Events come and go. Characters, too. We aren’t sure what’s important. At first. Maybe ever.

Sarah is in her own story. She knows it. She sees herself in her own narrative and there’s nothing neat or novel-like about it. She’s got the big-picture view.

In Chapter 5:

“We live in snow globes, don’t we? Pick them up, shake them, years swirl about us and settle.”

Beginning of Chapter 7:

“All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.”


“Certain images from our life stay with us, the lopsided crane we built from an erector set when we were ten, the dried husk of a pet chameleon, scenes from Rashomon or Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and we don’t know why. Do these, like dreams, derive from random firings of synapses? Or is there something about them freighted with meaning—veiled messages from universes within ourselves?”

We know from the get-go that Sarah Jane’s reality has left plenty of images that stay with her. Something. “I didn’t do all those things they say I did. Well, not all of them anyway.” That’s right up front in Chapter 1, paragraph seven.

And, a few beats later, that she’s living with a fragile heart. She had a child who lived for a scant six hours. “They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.”

And Sarah Jane thinks about her inability to describe that moment: “Sentences won’t hang together, they have holes in them. Verbs drop out, answers don’t fit questions. With losses like that, you have to wonder if what we think, what we’re able to think, gets dialed down too.”

Sarah Jane has a “patchwork past.” She was a short-order cook. At least, that’s how she made a living at various stops along the way. At first. She’s from “hillbilly stock.” Her father raised chickens. A stint in the military. College. An affair. A town called Farr.

Suddenly, she is acting sheriff (and she’s the daughter of a father who never called the cops when it was time to take care of business.) When we’re with acting sheriff Sarah Jane, there are moments that feel out of a straight-up crime novel, but those moments merge back into the ordinary bits of daily life. Sallis turns down the tension, turns up the reality. Sarah Jane isn’t slice-of-life, it’s julienne-of-life—a slow-motion kaleidoscope hooked to a way-back machine. Sarah Jane lives simultaneously in now and then.

We know Sarah is perceptive and empathetic. “We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.”

Sarah sees lots. She sees how a cop boyfriend changed when he started wearing a uniform, how others see the worst in people when they take in so much misery day after day. Sarah Jane floats above it—or through it. Is it what happened to her baby? Is it some event that shaped her? Or was she always this way? Sarah Jane comes right out and asks, “Can we choose who we are? Can we choose what we believe?”

It’s hard not to over-quote from the book because Sarah Jane is so blunt when it comes to storytelling. Story shape and structure are very much on her mind (in a novel that defies any easy categorization):

Sarah Jane:

“A lot is made in novels, American novels in particular, it seems, of the notion of redemption. Something someone done lurches up out of the past, or that someone does it as we watch, and the next 160 or 800 pages show the scrambling back to balance. That’s what my college teachers kept pointing out, anyhow. Maybe it was a sign of the times, the nation’s common soul flashing guilts it needed to pick up and put down elsewhere, teachers finding redemption in books because that’s what they were looking for. Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.”

Nope, not at all overthinking. No easy redemption here. No easy arc. Just life. All in a brisk 200 pages. Call Sarah Jane amazing.   

3 responses to “James Sallis, “Sarah Jane”

  1. Pingback: James Sallis, “The Long-Legged Fly” | Don't Need A Diagram

  2. Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

  3. Pingback: James Sallis, “The Moth” | Don't Need A Diagram

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