- With “Sarah Jane”, James Sallis follows a tradition that ranges from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to current films such as “Nomadland”. (Deutschlandradio / Liebeskind)
James Sallis is the dark philosopher among American thriller writers. His exceptional thriller “Sarah Jane” tells of a policewoman with a dubious past and asks how a life can be told.
The temptation is great to turn it into a real detective novel in retrospect. A soldier named Sarah Jane Pullman returns from the Iraq war and drifts aimlessly through the United States. Eventually she applied to the Sheriff’s Department in Farr, a small town “somewhere in the middle of the country”.
A dead cop
Sarah Jane becomes a cop – and not a bad one, until one day ex-cop Pryor Mills shows up and tries to link her to an eight-year-old murder. Shortly thereafter, Pryor Mills is found dead. Sarah Jane comes under more and more pressure. What is she hiding?
However, it is not that simple. James Sallis, who became known for his series about the black private detective Lew Griffin and his novel “Driver”, which was filmed with Ryan Gosling, has probably never written a “real” detective novel in the narrower sense. He is the great, dark philosopher among American thriller writers.
And so “Sarah Jane” is less about a policewoman who is overtaken by a crime in her past than about the question of whether there can be such a thing as the “narrative” of a life. Sarah Jane Pullmann definitely doesn’t care about becoming part of a story.
At 17, she escaped from her parents’ run-down chicken farm, got into bad company in St. Louis and served as a soldier in Iraq to avoid jail time. There she is ambushed, a comrade and a child die.
A dead friend
She returns traumatized, works as a cook in not-so-great restaurants and has a number of pretty broken relationships, until one of them ends in disaster. She kills a man by ramming the handle of a hairbrush into his neck in the bathroom and then – “just to be on the safe side” – smacking his head on the tiled floor.
Sara Jane is not hiding anything. But even though all of this is described very precisely, you will never know what actually happened in this bathroom – just like in the catastrophic operation in Iraq.
Again and again the narrative breaks off and the text opens up to essayistic considerations that go far beyond the genre of the detective novel: “All stories are ghost stories, about lost things, lost people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things that surround them strive to be seen and recognized by the living. “
On the edge of society
With “Sarah Jane”, James Sallis places himself in a tradition that extends from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to a current film such as “Nomadland”: with protagonists and protagonists who evade the great US stories and instead marginalize them drifting along society, on rafts, in rusty pick-ups, or like Sarah Jane Pullman after a fatal battle in the bathroom with the cheapest used car she can find – and which will take her anywhere on the map.
No new beginning, no end point: “We live in snow globes,” observes Sarah Jane Pullmann shortly before she takes the job in Farr’s Sheriff’s Department. “Take it in your hand, shake it vigorously, the years swirl around you and then calm down.”
James Sallis: “Sarah Jane”
From the American by Kathrin Bielfeldt and Jürgen Bürger
Liebeskind, Munich 2021
224 pages, 20 euros