I drive. That’s all I do.

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.


Filed under California, Crime, Noir, Sallis, James

31 responses to “I drive. That’s all I do.

  1. “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’ll say we have. Great quote and review – I’ve ordered one.

  2. Rarely has a book more plainly deserved to be made into a film Lee. It makes sense of that woman’s complaint in the US that the film was too arty and didn’t have enough driving in it. It’s not straight crime. Rather it’s arthouse crime. It sounds like the film was actually pretty faithful to the book, which would definitely not be what some would be looking for.

  3. Now I’d never thought of that advantage of being a man: you don’t get Danielle Steele books for Christmas. I did. You’re not missing anything. Remind to ask being a man for my next life.

    Great review and quotes. You really can see the images when reading, it’s cinematographic. I can almost hear Hotel California as a soundtrack.
    Your last quote reminds me of our conversation about the American myth for Europeans, you know, when I reviewed On the Holloway Road.

    One more reader for this book. I see they kept the original title for the French translation. It must be recent otherwise they have strange titles for noir crime fiction. (Like “Fais pas ta rosière” for “Little Sister” by Chandler. I don’t even know what that means in French)

    I remember Guy’s review, it’s good for my TBR when you read the same books, it grows slower. 🙂

  4. Max, I refer you to the comments made by Paul Morley and Someone Else on The Review Show, which complain about how Winding Refn’s film is ‘a film about the idea of what a film about driving should be’ or something. They thought it was too cool for it’s own good and brought it down a peg or two. I wonder if the same might be said about the source novel? I’m eagerly looking forward to both.

  5. Sallis takes the Crime Novel to a new height. Those snots who degrade crime novels as a lesser sort of genre, need to have Sallis shoved up their noses. Then they’d learn a thing or two.

    Of course now you have to read The Killer is Dying.

  6. As you know, I don’t read a lot of crime — but enthusiasm from both you and Guy is enough to convince me that this is worth my attention. Thanks.

  7. leroyhunter

    I picked this up after Guy’s review and was just as taken by that first paragraph. I haven’t bought it as I have The Killer Is Dying to get to first, but it sounds great Max.

    I’m kicking myself for not seeing the film when it was in cinemas.

    A classic or simple tale, done well, is one of the best things you can find often.

  8. A fellow non-driver… how nice and still the duffle-bag fantasy sounds familiar as well. Lucky me nobody would offer me a Danielle Steele novel, Emma, I’m shocked, how could that happen. Clearly the person didn’t know you.
    I tried to order this after having read Guy’s review, somehow didn’t work.
    I didn’t remember that Fitzgerald quote about action being character.
    I’ve read a few lame and unoriginal crime novels this year, could do with something different.

  9. Emma, it can be peculiarly depressing when someone gets you a gift on the basis that you like books, and they liked this one. It’s always almost something terrible and how do you respond? You can hardly say “I’m sorry, but while you remain my friend your taste in books appals me and I find the suggestion that you think I might actually want to read this slightly offensive”, as there’s a real risk of causing offence yourself. Tempting though.

    This is steeped in cinema. The book does in fact have a mythic quality, but it’s the modern myth of Vanishing Point and all those many movies where the hero ends up at some point holed up in a nowhere motel.

    Lee, quite possibly. It is part-genre part arthouse. It sounds at least like the film was faithful. The flaws, if they are flaws, are in the source material.

    Of course if anyone’s in the market for part-genre part-arthouse it’s me, and Guy too I imagine.

    Guy, I think crime comes in pretty highly on the genre hierarchy (there’s a funny org chart online showing different genres in order of literary respectability – crime is near the top, sf midway, urban fantasy quite low down and romance somewhere near the bottom as I recall). Anyone though who thinks crime can’t be literary simply hasn’t read any of the good stuff.

    Thinking about it I would say that sf can be literary, but that the considerations which drive sf don’t reward that and can actually work against it. I think sf can be great sf without being literary sf. Great crime though is often also literary crime, because of the importance of exploration of character in much of the genre.

    Not that there’s any exploration of character, but issues of psychology, mood, social critique, these are all central to crime fiction and can be combined with high level prose in a way that I think’s harder if your book’s about the implications of a new theory in high-energy physics.

    Kevin, it’s also short, always a bonus.

  10. Leroy, I was semi-serious in my comment that the difference between a classic tale and an unimaginative tale (not that that’s quite how I phrased it) is execution. There’s a chef in the UK called Giorgio Locatelli. He’s a very experienced and skilled chef, and his previous restaurant was near where I used to live. I ate there a few times, and one of my favourite dishes was a very simple grilled chicken main.

    In some ways grilled chicken really tests a chef. There’s very little to work with. It’s very cut back, it’s something the diner knows extremely well already, there’s little by way of sauce or distraction. The grilled chicken at Zafferano’s (his old restaurant) however was something quite exceptional. Like the shepherd’s pie at the Ivy before that changed hands it was a classic dish which many diners would wonder at even being present on the menu, but which at the hands of a chef at the top of their game was genuinely exceptional.

    Caroline, unfortunately there’s a lot of uninspired crime out there. Without Guy’s review I simply wouldn’t have read this. There wouldn’t have been anything to distinguish it for me from a bunch of other novels. It’s a problem, for reader and writer both. It’s easy for books to get lost in the noise.

  11. Receiving an appalling book is one of the tricky situations. (And if you don’t say anything, you may have another one by the same writer on another occasion. dreadful)
    The other one is when someone you hardly know says they love reading and then start gushing about a terrible writer. Like Marc Levi or Guillaume Musso: they are my personal hell in small talks about books in France.

  12. Yes, in the UK for a while everyone seemed to be giving anyone they knew with an interest in literary fiction a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

    I’m not, it’s fair to say, a fan.

    I’ve also been in a few awkward conversations where I don’t want to be dishonest, but equally I don’t really want to say that I don’t consider Stephen King (or whoever) to be the epitome of good writing. It comes up with music a lot too for me. Much of what I listen to people who’re not into music haven’t even heard of, just as most of my favourite authors are ones that people who aren’t into books won’t have heard of.

    The funny thing is there’s no reason they should have, but people can be very defensive and start assuming that a judgement is being made when generally I’m making no judgement of any kind. I think it’s partly a confidence thing. I can say to Trevor of themookseandthegripes that I don’t rate Cormac McCarthy as highly as he does and he just disagrees and moves on. He’s confident of his own ability to judge quality (and rightly so). If I say that though to someone with less confidence there’s a risk they think that I’m not criticising a book they like, but them as a person, which isn’t the case at all.

  13. I agree with you. And imagine how highbrow you sound when you don’t always read in your language or don’t know the French title of books or worse stammer in French because words about books come in English first. For example I have no idea of the French for The House of Mirth.

  14. LaurencePritchard

    That opening paragraph is excellent.
    I read Moth a while back and was eager for more suggestions.
    Only found it that the film Drive was Sallis about a week before the film. I thought the film was pretty much the most completely enjoyable film i saw this year.
    Thanks to all for the recommendations for The Killer is Dying. I’ll put that one on the list.

  15. leroyhunter

    I have fond memories of my only meal in Locanda Locatelli about 4 years ago: I don’t think there was any chicken on offer though.

  16. Moth I don’t know. Is that a Sallis then?

    Guy’s reviewed The Killer is Dying. If you’ve not seen it the review’s worth checking out.

    Leroy, the chicken didn’t follow him to Locanda. Good food there though I agree, though I think the space isn’t ideal (it’s sort of L shaped which I find a little odd). He’s a gifted chef Locatelli, he should be better known than he is. In a way it’s good he’s not though. Known chefs tend to hang up their aprons and appear on TV instead.

  17. LaurencePritchard

    Max, Moth is a “Lew Griffin” book. That’s as much as I know – I’m new to Sallis. A friend gave it to me. If I remember correctly, the main character is into Thomas Bernhard. That’s good enough for me.

    Will definitely check out Guy Savage’s review & others.

    Is the sequel really called Driven? How perfect.

    To side track a little, Drive was, I think, the third or fourth Ryan Gosling film I saw this year. Not that I’m particularly a fan; he just cropped up in every other film I saw for about three or four months. It will be interesting when I read Drive if i can disassociate myself from the characters and setting of the film; as other commenters have mentioned, it’s a stylised piece.

  18. I don’t think there is a sequel. I may have mentioned driven somewhere but if so that was more a typo I’m afraid. It would be a good name, but it doesn’t need a follow-up.

    It’s certainly been Gosling’s year. Driver is something of a blank canvas, so I suspect he will be Gosling for you now. I’d be interested to hear if not.

    Lew Griffin, I’ll google.

  19. Driven (the sequel to Drive) is scheduled for 3/12. A Killer is Dying also has that mythic quality you mention

  20. Ah, was it you who mentioned Driven Guy? It is an excellent name for a sequel.

  21. So in the crime writing that you consume, how many psychopaths do you encounter? A few? Oh- see this for lots of psychopaths http://www.fisheadmovie.com/where-to-see for me it is a movie that grills my brain as much as a book does, even though I find that everything is explained so well in it – by all these authors who have published so many books. It is good to know that you have enjoyed myself although I… I… deal with the ***** of blood in computer games more than on paper. Ouch I can’t bring myself to even writing the collective noun. Experts say that the author who produced the book “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” – Truman Capote- was probably a psychopath. Have you ever listened to Mr Jay Chou’s song “Twilight’s Chapter Seven” about a bloodshed of a murder in 1983 in London? It is completely in Mandarin Chinese and it is poetry and it is so eloquently beautiful but it is hard to say this without sounding like I enjoy the literary merits and beauty at the expense of murder victims. There is a comment on justice in it too- you must listen! [Disclaimer: the above are merely my personal opinions and do not represent the viewpoints of any corporate body]

  22. *** Typing error “enjoyed youself” not “enjoyed myself”

  23. I am sorry, I think the blood lapping towards him has killed my ability to spell. I give up. I am dead.

  24. The Jay Chou song may well include a line about justice, but if it’s in Mandarin I fear it will be lost on me.

    I actually think psychopathy can be a bit of a cop out for crime fiction. Not so much in say Derek Raymond’s second and fourth factory novels (both covered here) each of which features quite interesting portraits of psychopaths, but as I suspect you know it’s not enough to put a label on a character and call them done. There needs to be some further exploration.

    My understanding is that psychopaths (isn’t the correct term sociopaths) form around 2% of the population. At that level I’d query whether it’s actually correct to term it a pathology, rather than simply a minority cognitive baseline. Of course a cognitive baseline which is essentially predatory in nature.

    If the 2% figure is correct then psychopathy is normal, which will mean (as I think your site explores) that many will find themselves in careers which reward classic psychopath traits – often including intelligence, risk taking behaviour, but a lack of empathy. Working in the City of London as I do I’m sure I couldn’t comment further on that.

    Thanks for the comment. Assuming it’s not simply a driveby (which it may be as you plug a site, but corrections to the comment suggest possibly not) you might find those Derek Raymond reviews interesting. Difficult reading though.

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  27. I picked up a copy of this tiny pamphlet — I mean novel — after seeing the movie, and was both satisfied and disappointed. Satisfied because it is indeed very good at what it does, but disappointed because what it does is often so much less interesting than what the movie does. Specifically when it comes to the secondary characters, who were so fleshed out in the movie that they come across as ciphers in the book, and the movie took some of the scenes from the book and gave them an emotional weight that wasn’t there to begin with (the botched robbery in particular). And of course the book is missing all that wonderful style and atmosphere. But I still enjoyed it — as I said, I thought it was quite good (the actual writing, as you said, is top notch), and it’s so different from the movie that one doesn’t feel redundant after the other.

  28. Pamphlet, it’s a short novel. Besides, never mind the width, feel the quality!

    I’ve not seen the film yet, though I do plan to. I really liked the book, but it is definitely highly stylised. That worked for me but I can see why it might not for others (though I note overall you still enjoyed it). Good to hear the movie and book don’t each make the other redundant, though I admit I see little point in films which simply retreat the book literally on screen.

  29. Oh, I’m not complaining about the length. I actually prefer short novels to long ones, and I’ve made many an angry comment on literature blogs about how novels are getting longer and more self-indulgent. But I do think it’s kind of silly to print what’s basically a short story in a big font with huge margins and sell it for $14.

    The novel is stylized, but it’s nothing compared to the film. The film is absolutely drunk on 1980s Michael Mann; the music, the visuals, the dreamlike atmosphere, it’s thick enough to cut with a knife. I wish I had read the book first, because it’s impossible to read it after seeing the film without missing that style. But, like I said, I still enjoyed the book quite a bit, and I would recommend both the book and the film. Just in a certain order.

    I agree that adaptations shouldn’t stick too close to their source material. I think movies like Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now are ideal adaptations, films that capture the essence of their source material while doing their own thing. If you stick too close to the book, you’re not taking advantages of the differences between literature and cinema.

  30. Pricing novellas/short novels is tricky. To make it worth the publisher’s while you have to price at a point where the reader may balk given the pagecount. That said, I’d rather I admit still just have them say “hey, it’s expensive but it’s good – never mind the width, feel the quality” than pad the margins which can actually make books harder to read on occasion.

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