Ghost of a Flea, by James Sallis
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review.]
Ghost of a Flea has been announced as the closing novel in Sallis’ acclaimed Lew Griffin series. In this instance, Griffin confronts three mysteries: what has happened to his schizophrenic son, whose wallet has been found on a mutilated corpse in an abandoned building? who has been sending odd messages by postcard to–and seemingly stalking–Griffin’s god-daughter, a social worker? and who has been killing the pigeons in a local park that is a favorite spot of an autistic boy with a preternatural sensitivity to animals? None of these mysteries becomes a focal point in the plot, but all contribute to the novel’s themes. In fact, Griffin himself does not concentrate for any extended period on any of these "cases," and on his own, he "solves" only one of them. To plot-oriented fans of the genre, this mystery-detective novel might seem to be quite short on both the mystery and the detection.
But Griffin has other profound preoccupations. As he confronts the physical and psychological evidence of his own mortality, he ruminates on all of the "big issues": the significance of the individual life, the meaning in the manner and circumstances of one’s death, the defining aspects of individual identity, the nature of attachment, the causes and consequences of loss, the moral possibilities in human society, and the persistence of violence and cruelties of all kinds. The narrative enters the intersections of observation and memory, of dream and confused perception, of delusion and hallucination and hyper-awareness. Because of Griffin’s own varied experience and the texture of this particular narrative, the fragmented speech of the dispossessed and the demented is juxtaposed seamlessly with the very succinct and incisive comments of a broad range of writers, from novelists and poets to songwriters and social observers. The bridge between inarticulate speech and quotable writing rests, in part, on the fact that many of the writers referenced by Griffin are relatively obscure or largely forgotten. The novel returns repeatedly to the double-edged irony that one’s life and work have influences that one can hardly imagine and, yet, that time’s passage ultimately levels the legacies of the most ordinary and the most celebrated lives.
I do not mean to suggest that Ghost of a Flea is a dry novel of ideas. It is not. It is a truly compelling, seemingly effortlessly complex story. The emblematic figure of the novel may be Doo-Wop, a flamboyantly attired street performer who has transformed all sorts of overheard stories into his own "story," which he "spontaneously" presents to groups of tourists for drink and food and cash. Because of his outlandish appearance and his over-the-top manner, his listeners are, in effect, willing to accept the inconsistencies among his borrowed stories as simply evidence of the "normal" incongruities of experience. Ghost of a Flea consists of stories within a story within a story, and Sallis emphasizes that there may be very little that distinguishes the layered nature of story-telling from that of life. Although it has more the compact shape and brittle awareness of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Ghost of a Flea stands with John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest as one of the great contemporary novels onthe passing of a series protagonist and of the milieu which has been made his own. To assert that Ghost of a Flea transcends the mystery-detective genre would be to suggest that genre fiction is inherently inferior to "serious" fiction. I prefer to assert that Ghost of a Flea is much more thought-provoking and soul-shaping than much of what passes for "serious" fiction.