James Sallis, ‘Drive’

First published on Spike Magazine (21st December 2011) //

If Camus had been at all interested in the crime or noir genre, then you could imagine he might produce something vaguely comparable to James Sallis’ novel, Drive. Trotting in at a similar duration to Camus’ classic, The Fall, Sallis also plays with the unfolding napkin of time in this narrative, in what he might be hinting is the only time-signature we’ve come to understand, that of film; intercuts and reversals, flashbacks and action sequences. Cinematic, in a word, which seems understandable that it was made into “a major motion picture”, as my copy reminds (yes, I’m five years too late). But that word ‘cinematic’ wouldn’t really give enough of what is due when considering Sallis’ steady metronomic delivery. He is far less erratic than a camera-toting Hollywood director, or his subsequent intercut-loving editor.

The story follows a character known only as Driver. Driver works in the movies. He also works on the occasional heist or robbery, for all of which, it is made clear, he wants only to do that one thing that he is known for. We learn that following some severe familial disturbances, young Driver’s mother has been institutionalised. Then as a teenager, he goes out on his own, leaving his foster parents’ home, taking their car, moving to Los Angeles to find work. The plot opens in medias res, blood running on a bathroom floor, before weaving back and forth through the young man’s troublesome upbringing in Phoenix, then onto his successes amongst the movie crews, and his neighbourly relationship with a Latina and her four year old son, at a point in his life when he does the closest thing to ‘settle’ that he can manage.

In the movies, the stuntman is a stand-in for the actor and the actor is a stand-in for the person. Who the person is a stand-in for seems to be a question unanswerable, but posed in Sallis’ Drive (the tenth of his thirteen books) the narrative can be read straight or taken as a mini-handbook for modern alienation. This double-removal from filmed reality, a removal in itself, is the ghostlike angle that Sallis works from when he assembles the bodyparts of his character, Driver. A kind of fleshy ghost haunting the LA landscape, he can only been seen by a few people. That word that has been attached to his work, “existential”, chimes on every page, possibly for good reason. There seems a kind of two-lane flow of traffic where the prose can be read either quickly as an entertainment or, if it is to be taken more seriously, as a darkly philosophical tract. Then the action takes on a meditative slant, the story of a man chased by time. We’re given a neo-Western gunslinger, just one that never uses a gun. Instead he’s reworked into a driver, a slick operative of that other of man’s modern machines.

Driver does not think, only acts. Always taciturn, he is attempting to reach the state of ‘grace’ where thought or meditation is transcended. In between he drinks, makes deals with presumptuous men, pays them back.

There is that feeling that Driver’s story is fabricating unplanned as it hums along. Intentional or not, this method does give the text a kind of wandering unpredictable quality that is both intriguing and admirable. The form functions well with his theme; Sallis has a style akin to that of a Cormac McCarthy, or a printed-word Coen Brothers production; the familiar voice of a wizened cowboy sipping bourbon in the darkest recess of a grotty, empty saloon, whispering oldtimer wisdom about the nature of existence, the slew of time. But Sallis writes as if in slow bursts of energy, with a feel for narrative and rhythm that stays fresh by returns, intervals and intersections.

And setting much of this in Hollywood, a place Sallis seems to agree is as vacant and empty, even nihilistic, as its fame-hunting inhabitants, a city of life-substitutes, full of avaricious death-ready hollowmen, is no mistake. His hero too, is suited to the wide-open highways of Los Angeles, the reliability of the streetlights leading irreversibly to an eventide of gunshots, throat-slices and getaways. The sheen that Sallis gives to his world’s reality wraps like aluminium foil over his prose. There seems to be an idea in his head that has formulated into the novel. What the message is, is hidden, but a story emerges.

“Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two of them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.”

His Driver is involved and not involved in life, there and not there. And the sudden violence of Driver’s actions when they happen, often shocking in retrospect, read as if they are not happening at all, or happening too quickly to mean anything in the ‘grand scheme of things’. A blip. Everything is written in unceremonious and unrelenting measures, where one note is equally as important as another. Driver, like Sallis’ other creation, Lew Griffin, creates himself from nothing. He is meticulous and careful. Assembling his life as if assembling a gun. And when the violence is done with, the lessons follow:

“Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.

Hell with it. Either they’d figure it out or they wouldn’t. Most people never did.”

One short chapter after another, Sallis delivers the occasional asides on the Hollywood system, its producers, writers, and stars, with a cast of recidivist poor people that are the only real ones worth saving. No, it’s not revolutionary, but it is entertaining:

“TV’d been turned on but blessedly you couldn’t hear it. Some brainless comedy where actors with perfect white teeth spoke their lines then froze in place to let the laugh track unwind.”

Drive reads as if it was a bit of fast fun in between other projects. Which makes it all the more impressive. This is genre-fiction elevated somewhat by a writer who is clearly familiar with the genre that he is subverting. Sallis doesn’t believe in the long manipulation to wrench out a little emotion from his characters. He achieves it quite smoothly without really showing you how. He dashes off a backstory of a character, and his future, in a single breath. Sallis doesn’t try to con you into believing there is more depth than there is. He lets you decide. And he’ll let you decide again when the sequel, Driven, arrives in 2012.

Wikipedia: Spike Magazine is an internet cultural journal which began in 1996, founded by its editor Chris Mitchell in Brighton, England.

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