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Driver, the drifter

October 28, 2014 13 comments

Drive by James Sallis (2005) French title: 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.

Pretty evocative, isn’t it? It’s the first paragraph of Drive by James Sallis. Driver –we’ll never know his real name—is a stunt driver in Hollywood. A good one. He also uses his driving talents to participate in robberies as a getaway driver. His life seems to suit him just fine until one robbery turns wrong and he’s embarked in a pursuit that threatens his life.

Although the crime plot has its importance, the novel is a lot more than that. The plot is a backbone to give the book a skeleton while I felt that the real purpose was Driver himself. Who is he? He lives a lonely life working to satisfy basic needs, like food and shelter. He doesn’t want to have roots or to be involved with anyone on a personal level. He moves from one place to the other, meets his employers in bars and has mostly acquaintances, not friends. He keeps to himself, protects his reputation and reads the books of the films he’s hired for.

As Sallis reveals his past, we realise that Driver has always lived on the shady side of life.

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.

Sallis_DriveHe’s always been involved in robberies and developed his driving skills later, in Arizona when a friend introduced him to racing cars. He has a gift for the speed, the precise driving and mechanics. On set, he’s an artist, wanting to achieve the perfect stunt, the perfect ride for the camera. He’s nothing less than thorough. But he acts like an animal. He does what’s needed to put food on the table, lives in a flat in an anonymous apartment complex like it’s a burrow and when his safety is threatened, his survival instincts kick in and put him into motion. He never questions the morality of his actions; he’s on full survival mode and sometimes I thought it’s the only way of living he knew.

Driver was in a foster home and that may explain his restlessness: he never found his place in this family and left at a young age. He was on the road early, arrived in LA and had the chance to meet a man who helped him make a living out of his passion for driving.

Things change slightly when he befriends his neighbour Irina and her son Benicio. Standard, Irina’s husband is in prison and when he eventually comes out, Driver keeps in touch with Irina and gets to know him too. That’s a first hint that he can interact with other human beings. Although he states firmly to his criminal employers…

“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.”

…he’s still a participant in their crime and he has no qualms about being the driver. If he doesn’t want to know anything about the project, it’s more for security than because of a guilty conscience. Again we face someone who does whatever he needs to earn money to buy food and pay rent.

Drive is what crime fiction should be: well-written, like any other literary book. Sallis has a gift for setting an atmosphere, describing LA and its Mexican joints, Arizona and its deserts and brushing the portrays of the characters in a few sentences. He’s very visual and it’s not a surprise this novel has been made into a film. I’ve seen it when it was released and I have to admit I didn’t remember anything about it except for Ryan Gosling behind the wheel. I remember I thought it was good but now I only have fleeting memories of it. It could be a sign that it’s not that good. For me, it’s a sign it captures well Driver’s evanescence. I only have a blurred vision of him and that’s what he wants: he wants to drift on life without being seen or caught.

For excellent reviews of Drive, see Guy’s here and Max’s there and Caroline’s over there.

PS: I’ve seen on Wikipedia that James Sallis translated a book by Queneau, Saint Glinglin. For the records, when a French tells you they’ll do something A la St Glinglin, it means they’ll do it when pigs might fly.

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