OTHERS OF MY KIND, the latest novel from James Sallis, author of the contemporary noir classic DRIVE and the moody and oblique Lew Griffin crime series, is another short blast (under 120 pages) of emotional intensity filled with probing questions and unexpected, equally probing answers — much like his previous work, THE KILLER IS DYING.
At age 8, Jenny Rown was abducted by a man named Danny who kept her in a wooden box under his bed for two years. When Danny would return from work each evening, he would open the box, feed Jenny (mostly desserts), and then frequently subject her to sexual abuse.
Then she escaped and lived hidden in a local mall for over a year until she was discovered and turned over to the foster care system. At 16, she sued for emancipation as a legal adult. Following years of supporting herself as a waitress while also attending classes at a community college, she became a production editor at a local television station.
One evening, Jenny returns home to find a detective waiting for her. He has learned about Jenny’s past and asks if she would help with a recently rescued young woman who was also abducted and abused, and now lies silent in a hospital bed. Jenny is at first reluctant to relive her past, but then agrees and reaches out.
In her encounters with the young woman, Jenny comes to realize what she has learned about life and survival — lessons that she finds herself sharing with everyone from a group of squatters living in a condemned house next door, to the President of the United States whose son has gone missing and is feared kidnapped.
One immediate challenge to readers is that Jenny’s transition, told through her first-person account of both her past and her present days, seems difficult to accept. It’s not so much that she has managed to turn her abused and seemingly cursed life around; more that, as Sallis presents her, she is so incredibly well-adjusted, well-educated and — once motivated — so effectively compassionate. It’s all a bit too miraculous to believe, until we remember that Jenny is recalling and, in the process, condensing her life story for the sake of our understanding her hard-fought victories. It’s tenuous, but we are eventually won over thanks to Sallis’ insightful prose style.
Then, too, the author shifts the focus midstream from Jenny’s healing talents to her amazing ability to produce probing news features for TV with only scant source materials. Add to this the chapters of Jenny with the neighborhood squatters and eventually (and very briefly) with the president. You get the sense that the story of a survivor showing another similar victim what she’s learned about starting over and getting on with life is not exclusively the story Sallis wanted to tell.
Or perhaps he is subtly implying that the true key to survival and success is not to dwell inwardly on your misfortunes, but instead immerse yourself in work you love (if you are that lucky) and involve yourself with those around you, as we see Jenny doing throughout.
Sallis does not definitively solve this little narrative quandary, except perhaps when Jenny writes to the POTUS and states outright, “All my life I have felt at one and the same time an exception from ordinary life and a deep kinship with all those others passed over, relegated, forgotten.”
In the hands of another author, such ambiguity would be frustrating and unsatisfying. But anyone who has read him knows that Sallis is unlike any other author, which is why OTHERS OF MY KIND, for all its open-endedness, is so compelling and unforgettable — much like most of his work. —Alan Cranis