Ghost of a Flea

Ghost of a Flea by James SallisJames Sallis
Walker Books ($23.95)

by Kris Lawson

There's a painting hanging in the Tate Gallery in London: "Ghost of a Flea" by William Blake (1757-1827). It's dark and frightening, one of Blake's visions. Blake believed that fleas are inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men, and here he depicts one such spirit: a muscular figure stares avidly into an empty cup, its tongue flickering greedily, its eyes bulging. For Blake, a spirit this thirsty for blood had to be confined to a flea's size and limits—if it were within a man, for example, that man would be driven to consume the world. Blake's painting conveys this horrid sense of energy; the figure with its arms and legs poised for action, looks ready to rip out of its crackled paint skin in search of more blood.

Lew Griffin is searching for that thirsty ghost, among others. In Ghost of a Flea, Griffin becomes involved with a series of mysteries, the primary one being the search for a stalker who sends elliptically threatening letters signed William Blake. Griffin, a private detective, is also a writer who hasn't written in years, a teacher who doesn't teach, and a book reviewer who never finishes reading his assigned books. For Griffin, the thirst within, the ghost of a flea, represents the urge to create, to make something that lasts, to want life. And somehow, he's lost it.

Days of the week and hours of the day seem to mean little to Griffin, for whom a typical day might include sitting for 12 hours in a bar drinking coffee, then falling asleep on a bench in the front hallway of his house—or meeting a sweaty, shouting man in an alley who delivers imaginary babies from invisible mothers. After a few pages it becomes clear that Griffin's elusive style is his art form: combining observation with investigation, Griffin drifts through this grim world, trusting to his instincts for guidance. As an African-American in New Orleans who has seen the sour side of human nature, he isn't surprised when he sees more and worse evil-saddened, yes, but not shocked. He dulls his own pain with books and alcohol, quoting others to distance himself. Musing about Whitman and drinking, Griffin says that "things, objects are a coherent world to themselves, the 'dumb, beautiful ministers of reality.'"

Certainly they become that when you're drunk. You watch for hours as shadows from a palm or banana tree toss heads, sway and sweep wings across the wall beside your bed, doing all the creative things you should be doing. Towels tossed on the floor by the tub suddenly seem to harbor both great beauty and codes never before suspected, kennings just beyond reach, the towels' folds and convolutions catching up, as a phonograph record does sound, those of your own mind.

James Sallis has written five other Lew Griffin novels, as well as criticism, biography, and collections of poetry. Sallis's prose reflects his character's thoughts: skimming the surface of a bright day, skipping from one face to another, an old, sad memory overtaking his narrator's mind. Griffin, in fact, moves through New Orleans like a poet (which he is, in addition to his other occupations): every sight, sound and action has a meaning and emotion attached to it, seemingly unrelated things are part of a bigger pattern.

Sallis wisely doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on hardboiled tropes. As an African-American, a southerner, and a detective with an unhappy childhood and a lost love, Lew Griffin has seen it all so many times that the drinking and the investigations are simply parts of his life. He couldn't function without them. For Lew, the imperative mystery becomes, what happened to his life? At the beginning of the book, he is in a room with a body, and he's looking out the window, thinking about the path that led him and the body to that room. Everything outside that window seems like it's in a dream.

Griffin's search for the stalker, and for his missing son David, lead him to old friends, ghosts of ex-lovers, and enemies. No matter which way he turns, he still encounters himself. "World-weary" is generally used to imply a cynical, hardened character; Lew is simply weary of his world. Everything else—his lover leaving, an old friend getting shot—fades in comparison to the detective's true search—a search for himself at the bottom of all these memories and unfinished books, quotations and large chunks of missing time. He sometimes wonders if he should be searching at all:

When I was a kid, parents would tell us not to cross our eyes because they'd get stuck and we'd never be able to uncross them, we'd have to walk around like that the rest of our lives. That's what introspection can come down to. You keep on with it, sinking through level after level, after a while you can't get back to the top. You just go on pounding out the same thoughts on the stone over and over, fitting your feet into old footprints.

Private detectives like Lew Griffin are often called hardboiled for a reason—nothing gets into their shells until they're destroyed. Hardboiled detectives muse on the scenes around them but leave them behind by the next chapter, moving on in obdurate existentialism. For them, there are no loose ends, because they solve every mystery ruthlessly. Ghost of a Flea is more of an eloquent meditation than a mystery—and the meditation is on regret, death, loss, and the ultimately unsolvable mystery.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002