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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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAc23x2JJG0

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Filed under Fiction, Sallis James