Author: James Sallis
Publishers: Mariner Books, Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press
Genres: Noir, Crime-thriller
Release date: 2005
The connection between entertainment and reality has never been stronger. However, as our sponge-like brains absorb increasingly more movies, TV shows, songs, books, comics etc., our perception of reality has grown to resemble a multi-coloured, indecipherable blur. For example, anything featuring fast cars will push backward-cap-donning revv-heads to stain cinema car parks with tire tread and lost brain cells. Every so often, however, a creation will walk the line between intelligence and entertainment as coolly as a Buddhist tight-rope walker. Drive, written by author/poet/critic/musician/musicologist James Sallis, is one such attempt with something for book, TV, and film buffs alike.
His first critically and commercially effective novel provides pitch-perfect doses of explosive thrills and philosophical touches. This noir actioner, garnering a sequel, Driven, in 2012, is the greatest example of fusing Zen-like peacefulness and subtlety with Hollywood’s ADHD-like necessity for thrills, chills, and spectacle. The story is simple enough, following a man so mysterious and collected he never gives out his real name. Our lead, known as ‘Driver’ to the reader, leads a lonely, one-note existence. His day jobs include race-car driver and car-crash-savvy stuntman. However, his night-time activities lean on the wrong side of the law. To the underground universe of Los Angeles, Driver is the getaway driver worth tracking down.
Sallis’ best-selling beach-read revels in the ghouls and demons languishing in the City of Angels. From the opening page, the narrative, characters, and details stick like grit underneath fingernails. The story follows a collection of missions Driver carries out, testing his will, guile, and patience. Each chapter is separated into dark, atmospheric, and pulsating short stories. Shifting between lonely nights – in his filthy one-room apartment and daring assignments, Driver is a likeable but ambiguous audience avatar. With only a handful of character traits (“I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.”) Sallis paints his anti-hero’s existence with healthy splashes of blood-curdling restraint.
Despite horrific subject matter, Sallis short-but-sweet style is easy to digest over a couple of hours. Known for Lew Griffin and John Turner series, the acclaimed writer perfects his crime-thriller style within Drive‘s subdued, succinct narrative. Driver is an overwhelming noir lead character. Fuelled by blood-baths and carjackings, the balance between chaos and remorse is difficult to repel. The narration, treating several moments of hardcore violence with control, is wholly focused on character over kills. Drive’s conflict, between nice guy and revenge-fuelled toughie, provides a hearty, rich concoction of noir, action-thriller, and character study.
Unlike the film, in which Driver’s decisions are influenced by his neighbour, Irene, and her child after her husband/his dad’s death, the book treats remorseless as the all-encompassing form of justice. Right and wrong become blurred, fitting into the mid-2000s anti-hero trend disgusted by the American Dream. Subverting and building upon noir and airport-read conventions, the focus on alienation, displacement, and mean-spiritedness is not for everyone. At a pacy, refreshing 187 pages, Sallis’ story is a Tin Man figure – lacking heart, but determined and spirited throughout the adventure.