Ghost of a Flea

by James Sallis

Published by Walker & Company

237 pages, 2002

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Death by Allusion

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Ghost of a Flea, by poet and crime fiction writer James Sallis, is a dark, rich novel about the final days of New Orleans author and intellectual Lew Griffin. An amateur investigator and close friend of a veteran cop, Griffin is asked by his friend Alouette's husband to look into threats she is receiving at the community action office where she works. The book is less about the ensuing investigation than about Griffin's troubled life during this period. His adult son, who has inherited the mental instability that plagued Griffin and Griffin's own mother, disappears; his relationship with Deborah, his lover and intellectual companion, disintegrates; and his cop friend, Don Walsh, is shot during a convenience store robbery. Griffin's own ineffectual struggles with alcoholism and writer's block complete the picture.

Readers who mourn the passing of Walker Percy will feel their hearts quicken as they follow Sallis' supple prose. Like many Southern writers, Sallis has the ability to send the reader into a trance in which beauty and ugliness flow past, become fascinating and sometimes merge. Although Sallis is white and his protagonist black, the frequent reflections on New Orleans' peculiar attitudes toward race and class ring true. But in other ways, Ghost of a Flea has a certain fantastical quality that makes it difficult to take seriously. Griffin achieves his narrative equanimity (the novel is written in first-person) through his lifelong drinking and intellectualization. Sallis apparently finds his own equanimity through a mind-boggling abundance of literary quotations and allusions. I enjoyed reading this sensuous novel, but closed it with the odd feeling that the book didn't just end, but evaporated.

Like many people with a character flaw, narrator Griffin deflects criticism of his endless intellectualization by beating his critics to the punch and pointing it out himself:

You're always quoting other people, Verne told me once. Anytime something important happens or some thought logjams in your head, there you are, hopping like a schoolboy, pick me! pick me! with what Dante or Camus or Thingamabob said. You think anyone gives a half damn, Lew? And half the time, anyway, you're only using it to avoid digging in, avoid having to find out what you think. Or what you feel.

Verne, Alouette's mother, was right on the mark. The stories that entwine to make up Ghost of a Flea are skillfully but thickly sauced with references to Aristophanes, Emerson and Joyce -- as well as Rikki Lake and David Bowie. While these provide terrific insight into the complex character of Griffin, it's more than a bit off-putting to find nearly all of the other characters tossing such allusions about. Sallis gives us a weird mental hospital attendant with a fascination for William Blake. And then there's Alouette's boss at the social services agency, who observes as she cybersleuths through the agency computers for Griffin, "At some level, always, we're just looking for the secret stuff. Not much difference between Molly Bloom and Sally Raphael."

When it comes to pacing, Ghost of a Flea is similarly challenging. Sharply crafted segments, with Walsh confronting his youthful assailant in a hospital room, or Griffin romancing the statuesque housekeeper employed by Alouette's estranged father, power the plot ahead. But Sallis deliberately leaves the reader puzzling over the identity of a second narrator, whose musings on moths open the book. And the numerous digressions and flashbacks can confound even narrator Griffin ("I've just read back through the past dozen or so pages to see where we've got to in all this," he notes mid-sentence), as they slow the book to a dreamy pace. Here Griffin wakes up on a bench, where he'd collapsed after a late-night drunk:

Gutters and streetside had become harbors clogged with ships: colored glass bottles, hundreds of them, washed up from who knows what primal deposits, Log Cabin, Vicks VapoRub, Bromo-Seltzer, Hadacol, Dr. Tichenor's, startling both in their colors and long-forgotten familiarity. Sea-washed, bright and smooth, they clanked and rang and cast off flares of blue, amber, green. I sat thrown into the past myself by the sight of all those bottles, by the flood of memory and sensation they brought on, wholly unaware for the moment of the message lying coiled like a serpent in my answering machine.

It's not surprising to find that Sallis is a multitalented writer who has established himself as a critic and essayist, an author of science fiction and mystery works, a musicologist, an academician and, most recently, a biographer. Chester Himes: A Life (2000) is Sallis' acclaimed study of the groundbreaking black crime fiction writer best known for Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), a man Sallis has described as one of his sources for the character of Griffin. Perhaps it's natural that shortly after completing the Himes biography, Sallis wrote this final book in the Griffin series, bidding his highly successful detective farewell.

Having not read the five earlier books in James Sallis' series about Griffin (which began with The Long-Legged Fly in 1992), I'm not sure that Ghost of a Flea belongs in the category of crime fiction and mystery. It's not the book's literary allusions that create the problem -- we're used to literary crime fiction writers such as Reginald Hill and Dennis Lehane. But they write sinewy, resonant detective stories populated with good guys, bad guys and the occasional dead body. Sallis gives us instead a novel of the mind. His story is about a writer, father and friend who happens to be an amateur investigator somewhere down the line. Thus the dynamic of pursuit and confrontation between investigator and perpetrator that characterizes most crime fiction is almost completely absent from Ghost of a Flea. Its action takes place within the mind of the narrator, who is the consummate observer, interpreter and storyteller. Griffin rarely asks a sharp question, or presses a point. Instead, he watches and listens as the story unfolds around him. Thus he doesn't actively solve the mystery of Alouette's threatening notes, but watches as it explains itself -- in a satisfyingly surprising manner.

While Griffin seems passive -- immobilized by drinking and rationalizing -- he is anything but cold or disaffected. Thus, despite its gritty New Orleans setting, Ghost of a Flea is nothing like hard-boiled detective fiction. Instead, it's nearly romantic, with a lush, sensuous, amoral quality completely in keeping with every experience I've had of New Orleans and its people. And it's this provocative, amoral note that might make Ghost of a Flea a worthwhile choice for the crime fiction reader hungry for something very, very different. | January 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.