Deputy sheriff John Turner is a man with a past ---
ex-policeman, ex-convict, combat veteran, former therapist,
grieving lover --- trying to get by in life and overcome the
unbearable sadness of losing his lover, Val Bjorn, who died two
years earlier. Val was shot as she and Turner sipped wine on the
front porch of their cabin, just outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
Seconds before the shot rang out, Val told him, “Sometimes
you just have to see how much music you can make with what you have
Val’s last words give Turner some small comfort and a sense
of purpose in his life. To escape his past, the painful memories
and the big-city atmosphere of Memphis, he moves to a small town in
rural Tennessee. The town has a distinctively slower pace, so slow
in fact that it is “dying up like the riverbed.” In the
withering community, where everyone knows everyone else’s
business, Turner is called upon by Sheriff Lonnie Bates to serve as
One morning, while Sheriff Bates is off fishing, Turner and Doc
Oldham chat outside of Manny’s Dollar $tore. The recently
retired Doc, who has stopped by to show Turner a dance step he has
just learned, lives his days “hugging the good earth.”
During their visit, Doc contemplates a stray grasshopper and talks
about how life is “frangible” --- fragile and easily
broken --- before leaving Turner to his thoughts.
As Turner commences to go about his business, he looks up and sees
Billy Bates, the sheriff’s son, barreling down the street in
a Buick Regal. The stolen car crashes through the front wall of
City Hall. In an instant, Turner and Doc are on the scene. The
aging doctor springs into action. Doc works with precision and
care, knowing exactly what to do and doing it without conscious
thought; he stabilizes Billy until the town’s
Later that day, Turner’s good friend, Eldon Brown, shows up
on a motorcycle, with a banjo case slung on the bike behind him.
Eldon tells Turner that he is wanted for questioning in a murder
that has occurred outside a coffeehouse in Arlington, Texas, where
Eldon was playing. He has come to seek help from Turner and tells
him, “I think I killed someone.” And later, Jed Baxter,
a detective from Fort Worth, shows up to find Eldon and bring him
back to Texas.
No matter how hard Turner tries to repair himself and find solace,
death comes calling in odd and disturbing ways. A buzzard is
impaled in a windshield, a man bleeds to death after being stabbed
with a pocketknife, and a mute child falls through a broken board
in a dilapidated house, is trapped for days and dies --- unable to
cry out for help.
In this slim, dark novel, SALT RIVER gives an unvarnished and
unflinching look at the inevitability of death, the unfairness of
life and man’s ability to find some small measure of beauty
in the midst of sorrow and pain. This is not an easy story to read,
but it’s one that is hard to forget.
Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011