Drive, by James Sallis
Readers often come to writers with expectations. Sometimes those are based on that writer’s previous work (and those expectations can be a straitjacket for a writer), sometimes they’re based on reviews or blog comments, sometimes they’re based on pure assumption (I have expectations about Danielle Steele, but truth be told I’ve very little to base them on).
When it came to reading James Sallis I expected competent crime writing. I expected solid thrillers with efficient prose and a well crafted plot; the sort of book I might read on a long journey or when tired. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of book, and plenty right with it. On the strength of Drive though James Sallis is a much more interesting animal.
Here’s the opening paragraph from Drive:
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.
Firstly, that’s better than competent writing. Just seeing it again now it strikes me how clear it is. I’ve not yet seen the film version of Drive, but this unfolds in my head as I read it. I can see the blood and the light, hear the weeping and the sound of traffic. I even have an image of Motel 6. This is the kind of prose that often gets described as lean, taut, and much as I’d like to come up with something more original I find myself reaching for the same words. It is efficient prose, but it’s not merely efficient. It has style.
It’s immediately apparent that this paragraph is just a slice in time. Driver is sitting, not in movement. Blood is still lapping towards him though, and whoever is crying is still doing so, so it’s not a static scene. This is the immediate aftermath of violence. A brief moment of reflection, caught between the action just past and the time for regret later. The story’s already started, the reader is thrown in, in media res.
From there Sallis tells a fairly straightforward tale of a heist gone bad, a doublecross and a spiral of resulting revenge and murder. Classic Hollywood stuff, and this is very much a Hollywood narrative. The tricks here are cinematic.
Characters are iconic (none more so than Driver, a man with no name, but there’s also hired muscle out of Houston called Dave Strong, a blonde named Blanche and so on). The story is told in scenes, each of which is framed so neatly you can almost hear Sallis yelling cut. The narrative jumps backward and forward in time, not so much as to be confusing but so that I was pulled in and forward, so that I wanted to see how it would all fit together.
Driver is just that. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and part time getaway driver. Sallis tells enough of his past to get a feel for his character, but never his name. Here as the classic Fitzgerald quote goes, action is character. We know Driver through what he does, how he does it. What he says is almost unimportant, and besides he doesn’t say much.
Up till the time Driver got his growth about twelve, he was small for his age, an attribute of which his father made full use. The boy could fit easily through small openings, bathroom windows, pet doors and so on, making him a considerable helpmate at his father’s trade, which happened to be burglary. When he did get his growth he got it all at once, shooting up from just below four feet to six-two almost overnight, it seemed. He’d been something of a stranger to and in his body ever since. When he walked, his arms flailed about and he shambled. If he tried to run, often as not he’d trip and fall over. One thing he could do, though, was drive. And he drove like a son of a bitch.
Drive is just as focused as Driver himself. It sets out to tell a classic story (the difference between a classic story and a clichéd story is mostly execution) and it does so like a son of a bitch. I thought it one of the best and most invigorating crime novels I’ve read in a while, even though in terms of plot and character there’s nothing original here at all.
I’ll end with one final quote. It’s here because I think it’s a thing of beauty, and because it captures the novel. It’s Hollywood in a sentence.
Throwing the duffel bag over the seat, he backed out of the garage, pulled up by the stop sign at the end of the street, and made a hard left to California.
Haven’t we all at times wanted to throw a duffel bag over the seat, pull up to the end of the street and make a hard left to California? I know I have, and I don’t even know how to drive.
Guy Savage reviewed Drive here: here and is pretty much responsible for bringing Sallis to my attention. My copy came as a review freebie from the publisher.