Drive by James Sallis

“Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.”

A few months ago I read The Killer is Dying from American author James Sallis. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to this writer, so here I am listening to the throbbing, hypnotic soundtrack of Drive from the recently-released film and writing a review of Sallis’s phenomenal crime novel Drive. While this is my favourite crime novel of the year, Drive is so well-written, it transcends genre, so if you’re a crime fan, waste no time–do yourself a favour and get this book. I loved it.

At 158 pages, Drive is lean and mean, yet at the same time it feels as though it’s a lot longer novel. Not sure how Sallis achieves this but the author’s use of the passage of time and the almost mythological stature of its protagonist, a young man known simply as Driver, contribute to the book’s substance.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

Sallis drops us right into the tale–chaos, blood, death and some kind of deal that’s gone wrong, and from this point the novel goes back and forth in time leading up to the scene in the cheap motel room and beyond.

Driver is a young man with a past seeped in crime and violence who arrives in Hollywood at age 16 hoping to become a stunt driver. A steady worker with extraordinary talent who gets the job done every time, Driver soon becomes a name in the business, but he also has a sideline: he’s a wheelman, and as he explains to someone who wants to hire him, there are limitations to the jobs he takes on:

I drive. That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons, I drive.

Driver’s fees are high which takes him out of the low-life league, but his rep ensures that some are willing to pay the price. Driver always picks his own vehicles “something that would fall into the background,” with a “preference for older Buicks, mid-range, some brown or gray,” but since he’s only in charge of the driving part of the heist, there’s a lot that can go wrong:

Things go wrong on a job, sometimes it starts so subtly you don’t see it at first. Other times, it’s all dominoes and fireworks.

As the novel goes back and forth in time, we pick up slivers from Driver’s past–the friends he made, the jobs that went wrong, the Hollywood stunts, and the anonymous rootless life he leads:

He existed a step or two to one side of the common world, largely out of sight, a shadow, all but invisible. Whatever he owned, either he could hoist it on his back and lug it along or he could walk away from it. Anonymity was the thing he loved most about the city, being a part of it and apart from it at the same time. He favoured older apartment complexes where parking lots were cracked and stained with oil, where when the guy a few doors down played his music too loud you weren’t about to complain, where frequently tenants loaded up in the middle of the night and rode off never to be heard from again. Even cops didn’t like coming into such places.

A large portion of the book follows Driver as we found him in the first chapter, injured, surrounded by stiffs and wondering just who sold him out. It may not be personal, but Driver’s enemies want him dead, and they make the mistake of severely underestimating him….

By leaving Driver as a largely undefined character (except for his phenomenal driving ability), Sallis creates an intriguing, enigmatic anti-hero. Just what Driver is capable of becomes evident as this extraordinary neo-noir novel plays out, and while it’s clear that Driver’s actions become a response to circumstances, it’s also obvious that Driver isn’t the sort of man who leaves loose ends. He just doesn’t think that way. Once again, wordmaster Sallis wastes no words, and while the story is lean, it’s haunting and will dig in under your skin.

But what he did best, what he did better than just about anyone else was, he drove. 

For anyone interested, here’s a film trailer:



Filed under Fiction, Sallis James

20 responses to “Drive by James Sallis

  1. Now that’s a book that comes with high praise. Sounds very good.
    Never heard of a book having a driver as a central character.
    I’ll have a look at the movie too. That would save me to add another book on the pile. For now.

  2. leroyhunter

    Sounds great. I bought The Killer Is Dying after your review, so Sallis is on the agenda.
    Have you seen the film?

    • No I haven’t Leroy. I looked at several of the trailers and one in particular just showed the driving. The clip I included here tells me that the film has altered the book somewhat–not I think the essentials, but I read an interview with Sallis about the film, and he seemed very happy with the director’s interpretation.

  3. Oh no! You just added another book to my book pile!
    I’ve never read Sallis, so I’ll start with this one.

  4. I have a review copy of this (and of The Killer Inside Me). Unfortunately I asked for both as ebooks rather than hardcopy so got them in pdf form which is a pain. Still, free is nothing to complain of.

    This just sounds great. I’ll be starting with this one and am really looking forward to it. Sallis generally sounds underrated. Hopefully the film will help correct that.

    • Max,
      If you send the pdf files to your personal kindle address and write “convert” as the title of the e-mail, Amazon will send it you back in kindle format. Very convenient.

    • Max: You would love this book.

      You have a kindle 2? Go to HELP (Amazon)
      Under TOPICS (left hand screen), go to KINDLE
      In the middle of the screen you see, transferring files with a sub-category, sending personal docs.

      There is a small fee, but you can use
      and then it’s free.
      I am looking at the US site. Might be different for UK

      The film comes out on DVD in the UK in the New Year.

  5. Emma,

    Thanks. I had no idea. I’ll do that, for those and for a 17th Century novel I have which I still haven’t got round to reading as I only have it in pdf form.

  6. Both Sallis’s are now on my kindle and waiting to be read.

  7. Of the two, I preferred Drive, but I find myself thinking about The Killer is Dying a lot. I see that Drive, the film, will be released on DVD in the uk 1/12.

  8. Pingback: I drive. That’s all I do. | Pechorin’s Journal

  9. Now I’ve seen the film by Nicolas Winding.
    After watching Les Lyonnais by Olivier Marchal the other day, I’ve created my own film category: the fingerprint films. What’s the definition? A film that makes me go out of the cinema with my fingerprints all over my glasses due to various attempts at hiding my eyes during bloody and violent scenes. I’m a little too sensitive when I watch films.

    So Drive perfectly qualifies for that newly founded category. I haven’t read the book but I’d bet that the film gives back the story and the flavour, the atmosphere.

    The light is incredible and so are the images of LA by night.
    The actors are excellent, Ryan Gosling didn’t have to spend a lot of time learning his lines since he barely speaks but he put the extra time into working the character, his positions, his attitude, his looks. He’s very convincing.
    The tension builds slowly but steadily and irrevocably as we progressively discover what the character (he’s never named) is capable of.
    I agree with Guy, the soundtrack is hypnotic, a real part of the film. It contributes to the atmosphere and it’s even more noticeable as Driver hardly talks.

    I’ve gone out of the cinema in a sort of daze, the parking lot seemed dreary suddenly and I felt self-conscious as I was driving after watching Driver drive in the movie.

    Really, it’s excellent.

    • I haven’t seen it yet, Emma, but my copy is on order. Given the scenes from the film clips, I’d say that the film differs substantially from the book. Not sure how that effects the blood ratio, but the visual impact of the film can always be tremendous anyway.

      I’m a Marchal fan btw

  10. I just finished reading the book and watching the movie. The review (s) are upcoming.
    The movie and the book have nothing in common. Neither the character nor the atmopshere.
    I’m a sucker for great score, although it’s very 90ish, that’s why I must honestly admit, I did prefer the movie, although it’s far more graphic than the book and really quite different. The book works on a totally different level.

  11. Pingback: Drive – The Book by James Sallis (2006) and The Movie by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  12. I read the book after seeing the movie, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but the movie beats it. I missed the performances, I missed the style, I missed the music. Every change the movie made in the screenplay was an improvement.

    Having said that, they’re so different that experiencing them both doesn’t feel redundant, and they’re both good enough for me to recommend.

    Apparently there’s a sequel coming from Sallis later this month. (Check out the film’s Wikipedia article.) I’m eager to read it, but I’m even more eager for a film sequel.

    • I can’t see Hollywood passing up the opportunity to make a sequel–something filmmakers seem to do with the flimiest of excuses anyway. I found it hard to compare the film and the book, but I much preferred the book. Eager for the sequel.

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