Willnot by James Sallis is a poetic and lyrically written novel. It is a ballet of words that flow from action to philosophy, (“Why are we here, Stephen?” Doc asks a patient) to memories through dreams and then back through the course again. It is stream of consciousness, non-sequiturs, flashes from here and there, connected by the poetic prose and some fabulous puns sprinkled ever so masterfully. Road signs: “Caution Church,” Fiends are Forever,” This Property is Pasted,” “Watch for Falling Crocks,” a license plate in Texas: RVLTN, Revolution or Revelation? And my favorite “Jesus Saves with the first ‘s’ of ‘saves’ to Jesus Raves.” Is Jesus the subject of adjective? I’m always misreading road signs to my amusement and those in the car. It is a delightful and a fun and an addictive read. Wish there were more of it.
Lamar Hale, a doctor, and his partner, Richard, the “schoolmarm,” an English teacher, live in Willnot, a rural town. They have a cat named Dickens. Death is all around them since some of the doctor’s patients die; that’s what happens at the end of life. Richard’s student pass and fail; that’s what students do; and administrators forget they were once teachers. This is about life, real life; and death is part of real life as is schooling. The novel is filled with full tilt characters who are just “passing through” and those who “just keep moving.” Willnot is like a circus town as folks come and go with and without fanfare. A mass grave has been discovered; soldiers who are snipers from undeclared wars pass through; an FBI agent comes through on assignment and then finds it a good place for leisure time; truckers have accidents and die in the hospital; others come to the hospital and recover; students have physicals, ancestors come home to die. Lamar dreams of the past as he remembers his dad; sits by a dying man who has come home to his ancestral Haversham home and other ghosts of the past to help him with the here and now.
Over dinner every night, sometimes in their “periodic shutdowns” which meant no television, no radio, and no newspapers for twenty four hours, Lamar and Richard review the day’s events and bring it all into perspective as any dinner should. Each learns much from the other, but they learn more from those whose paths they cross during the day. These ramblings of Sallis are about the business of living and letting live that is a metaphor for all of us to follow in the living of life. As always parts of the past are integral in the present and eventually the future as stories are shared between the two. Stories are what we are all about and understanding those stories helps make our lives understandable. The threads of life are woven magically by Sallis and help create a most beautiful web resembling life; a thing we are all passing through and also seem to be strays in, trying to discover why we are here.
I think I’ll read this rich literary event again. And what’s with the title? O joy, oh frabjous day.