Drive Book Review: Noir Navigator

Author: James Sallis

Publishers: Mariner Books, Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press

Genres: Noir, Crime-thriller


Release date: 2005

Country: USA


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. drive-bvfThe 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.

Verdict: A gritty but simplistic Airport yarn.

Gone Girl Book Review: Partners in Crime

Author: Gillian Flynn

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

Genre: Noir, Thriller


Release: 2012

Country: USA




Contemporary entertainment is peppered with tales of scorned femme fatales, slimy masculine figures, and doomed marriages. The effect of postmodernism in 20th Century literature and cinema saw artists question the constructs we had become accustomed to. Some of the biggest films, TV shows, books, and visual art works tore apart political, economic, social and cultural convention with cheek-wide glee. Gone Girl has, arguably, carried the postmodernist torch throughout the past few years. Flynn, a former Entertainment Weekly journalist turned author, has a real soft spot for tearing everything down around her. It is true – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. However, we cannot, as much as we would like to, blame everything on tabloid media’s virus-like effect on pop-culture and ideology. So, why is Gone Girl the much-talked-about book of the past decade.

Flynn’s second book, a New York Times Best Seller about 16x over, jumps from one gender to the other in rapid succession, giving the audience at least two fully rounded narrators. The unreliable narrator trope is beaten like drum throughout this arresting page-turner. We have Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot-Dunne, a married couple wiling away in a Missourian ‘McMansion’ whilst Nick’s mom dies of breast cancer. Nick, having grown up in this fly-over territory, has gotten used to the tranquility of modern suburbia. He, now a creative writing teacher at the local university, is even fine with the nosy neighbours and homeless communities surrounding them. Amy, having grown up in New York City’s upper-class establishments, feels restless, lonely, and frustrated. The plot thickens, however, when, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and blood splatters around the kitchen and living room – Amy has gone missing.

gone-girl-adaptation-reviewIn the “dark and gritty” era, where post-war disillusionment draws us toward cynical, nihilistic artistic works, Gone Girl has something intelligent and interesting to say about our world. There are two forms of conversation warranted here – discussion pre and post Flynn’s big publication. Pre Gone Girl, the ascension of neo noir, crime-thriller experiment were pumped out without notice. Post Gone Girl, however, this trend has come close to overshadowing anything else the film, TV, and novel industries have to offer. The book utilises its core ingredients with style and brutal tenacity. The duelling narration bleeds over into several cold, heart-wrenching flashbacks. Nick and Amy’s first interactions – defined by diary entries telling of cute dates and explicit sexual encounters – boosts the conflict and climax’s impact impeccably. Each flashback makes us the third wheel, delving into a couple’s saccharine adventures. The fusion of bitter and sweet becomes increasingly more concentrated and repulsive.

Some chapters and pages are difficult to wrap your head around. Flynn’s pulpy prose extends beyond reason at some points, throwing in a wide array of tonal shifts and shocking revelations. As the ultimate Airport novel/beach read, the appeal is certainly on display. However, some may find this sordid, sycophantic narrative hard to digest. Nick and Amy, despite the story’s overwhelming trials and tortuous situations, are barely likeable. Flynn, finding unique ways of emphasising key words and phrases, illuminates just how shallow and disgusting they are. Their every thought a feeling is covered in a thick layer of sarcasm and irony. The world-weary “partner in crime” do indeed deserve one another. However, Flynn’s worldview reflects that of some of contemporary entertainment’s greatest visionaries.With two fingers on the pulse, each sentence beats like a well-oiled drum.

The self-reflexivity and steely reserve elicits several laugh-out-loud comedic moments. Some throwaway lines are pithy and cute, others cause eyeballs to burst out of skulls. The book’s relationship with neo noir conventions, from the claustrophobic atmosphere to the divide between masculinity and femininity, reinvigorates the once-overlooked genre. In fact, Flynn takes joy in destroying the media, the American Dream, and all first world problems in between. This uber-popular novel may become the encapsulation of the early 21st Century’s greatest talking points. It’s a twisted, visceral, and thrilling ode to crime-thriller literature immense allure.

Verdict: A steely, conniving crime-thriller.