Book Review: “Willnot” by James Sallis.

Alright, fine, I was wrong. I’m able to write this week’s book review tonight after all. So I did today’s and tomorrow’s blog posts in one day. That’s fine, I had plans after work tomorrow to work on revising the script anyway so this will give me more time to work on that.

In my previous review of The Suicide Motor Club I made a complaint that we are introduced to a whole array of characters and become emotionally invested in them only for them to get killed a few pages later. There’s something to be said for a wide array of characters if it can be done right, however, and that’s what happens in James Sallis’ latest novel Willnot. There may be only a handful of main characters that the reader follows throughout the book. But along the way we meet the titular small town’s wide range of characters, if anything for fleeting moments but just long enough to enrich the bleak plot with some color.

The narrator of the story, Dr. Lamar Hale puts it this way:

I’m not sure that as a kid I’d have recognized weird if it walked up and spit in my face. People in Willnot tend to dwell at the thin edge of maps, more than a few of them staring tygers in the eye. Something in their nature that draws them here, keeps them here? Or seeps in over time from contact? Stand them up against a straight line; they’ll lean.

But while we meet a wide variety of people along the way, it only masks the story’s plot. The story begins with the townsfolk digging up a site where bodies were found. Dr. Hale, who appears to be the town’s most prominent general practitioner and surgeon is called to the site to give any help that he can. The mystery of the bodies becomes the talk of the town. Meanwhile, Bobby Lowndes pays a series of secretive visits to Dr. Hale. Bobby was a boy that Dr. Hale took care of years ago before Bobby went off to join the military. When he comes back it’s revealed that he was a sniper than went AWOL. An FBI on the search for Bobby then visits Dr. Hale, as well as a news reporter. Bobby is caught and sent to a hospital when another sniper’s bullet hits him. He escapes, we meet who we assume was the other soldier, who also escapes.

Throughout this whole affair we get plenty slices of life at Dr. Hale’s home with him, his partner Richard, and their ailing cat. Richard has a goofy sense of humor which adds plenty of light touches throughout the book. Sometimes he becomes a bit of a cliché in that regard, providing too many jokes and become slightly stale as a character. But when a bullet pierces their home during one of Bobby’s visits hits Richard, his sense of humor helps Dr. Hale and the reader through the months of recovery ahead.

Even with a crack team of experts hired by the town to investigate the bodies, we never find out the nature of the burial site. None of the bodies are identified, nor are the pieces of paper that was buried with them. Likewise, we never find out the backstory of Bobby as a soldier and his feud with the other one. Yet the book doesn’t feel incomplete as a result. We don’t need to know all of the answers in order to become engrossed in the story. By following Dr. Hale’s perception of the events we feel the same amount of tension and confusion that he feels.

Sometimes (especially when Dr. Hale introduces the team of experts that are working on the burial site) the language feels film noir-ish, sometimes it doesn’t. The narrative is rife with sentence fragments (which is something I’m just going to have to get used to in present-day fiction). Yet the story reads quickly—aside from the book only being under two hundred words, I found myself pushing forward with the desire to find out what happens next. I didn’t feel cheated at the end by not getting all of the questions answered. The main story tied up very nicely, giving one a sense of closure.

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