Online Edition: Summer 2007

Potato Tree

James Sallis

Host Publications ($25)

By Morris Collins

Collecting stories published over the course of forty years, Potato Tree clearly reflects James Sallis’s distinct, unconventional aesthetic. Inanimate objects come to life, jaguars haunt bedrooms, and orchids compose epic poetry. In the title story, a doctor tells a patient “You just won’t ever know if things are as they seem to you; they could be quite different.” This comment serves as an accurate description of the entire collection.

Although Potato Tree includes forty-one stories in 180 pages, they do not read as flash-fiction, nor are they facile or frivolous. Instead, each contains all the conventions of traditional narratives—plot, character, narrative arc, and setting—but in unusual proportions. As Sallis puts it in his introduction, he “sedulously abjure[s]” conventional plot. “There is,” he writes “so much else of interest.”

Sallis often employs formal innovation to craft stories that seem like shadows of something larger; several take the form of fugues, while others, with their use of stage directions and dramatic conventions, mimic play scripts. Inevitably, these fictions subvert normal genre conventions. While his work is formally unconventional, Sallis takes that old adage, show don’t tell, to a new height. In “I Saw Robert Johnson” Sallis casts a gruesome murder within the frame of a Chaucerian dream vision:

I had no memory of the night, only a vague remembrance of dreaming: trees with the face of my wife, grass mowed down that spoke in the voice of my daughter, a parliament of fowls done up in tight skirts and unbuttoned shirtwaists.

The women had begun dropping off children, and I stood at the window nude, my face blood-smeared, wondering what would happen if they should see me.

Indeed, the idea of “watching,” of sequestering oneself from a world that appears both strange and violent, characterizes Sallis’s work. In “Others,” a man invents lives for himself in newspaper classifieds in order to “know another person, to bridge this awful solitude we’re locked into.” Often in these stories, the distance between the self and others remains unbridgeable; relationships thrum with disaffected sex and resonate with horror.

While Sallis’s thematic concerns have remained constant throughout his career, this collection reveals the development of his style. “Kazoo,” his first published story, blurs the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical: “He’s giving me the eye, so I take it and put it in my pocket right next to the finger someone gave me the day before.” Explosions into outright surrealism occur less often in his recent stories, where the fantastic elements lie further beneath the surface; his protagonists no longer live on the margins of reality, but at the edge of reason. Marvelous imagery and syntax aside, Sallis works at his best when he lays emotions bare, such as in “Three Stories,” where a man returns home for the first time after his lover has died: “The apartment was small, and mine.” In these later fictions, he chips away the ornamentation and, in stark simplicity, exposes delicate wounds.

Sallis’s oeuvre includes eleven novels, four previous books of short stories, and numerous works of poetry, biography, literary criticism, translation, and musicology. While he may remain best known for his longer works, in Potato Tree a reader will find stories fraught with beauty, solitude, and strange moments of humor, which haunt and stun and bear returning to again and again.

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