James Sallis, ‘Driven’

First published on 3:AM Magazine (7th March 2012) //


Driven, James Sallis, No Exit Press 2012

If James Sallis’ totemic Driver seemed somehow superhuman in the original Drive, then in its sequel, things have evolved even further. In Driven, the now-Nietzschean wheelman becomes all too real, all too human, yet achieves greater impact this time through his perceived weakness and vulnerability, rather than raw strength and power. That isn’t to say there isn’t as much violence or throat-kicking to be had. Sallis maintains his style of filmic time signatures and underplayed delivery and, by working in a love interest, several new faces, and even a new identity, builds exhilaratingly on the mythology of his soon-to-be-timeless Zarathustra.

It isn’t only his protagonist that Sallis re-bodies. Unlike its predecessor, this is a more traditional, straightforward narrative. Yet the style, ever more elliptical, works into a rarefied rhythm that, perhaps too inaccessible for the first Driver novel, finds its place here after the initial introductions, his intentions already laid out. Particularly through a new accomplice, the equally shadowy, Felix, the dialogue and descriptions become heavily colloquial, reading like a transcript of a tale spoken into a voice recorder; the ghost of Driver some moonlit future myth passed down from the battered lips of his survivors. Not that there are many. Always quick to adapt, we learn that Driver has a few new tricks, picked up from working on kung fu movies. This is Sallis’ way of telling us, early on, that things will be just as fast and just as brutal; the violence and grace all equal parts of the world that Sallis creates, all flattened contours on his L.A. topography, where genre distinctions are lost and re-formed, in the blending of the literary and the pulp, into something transcendent of both.

Driven opens in familiar territory, familiar and by now comforting, in a morbid sense, in that he shows us a murder, then leaves us winding up the trail of his bloody question mark. Again that theme of Man tracked, to his end, by Time and his history, mixed with dissections of eternal recurrence, gives the reader that extra intrigue.

In movies the guy who almost drowned shoots up out of the water and into sunlight like a porpoise, gulping at the air so long denied him, relief writ large on his face.

When Driver first surfaced, six, seven years ago, it had been like that, only in reverse. Sunlight, air, and freedom – his impulse was to dive back in. He wanted the darkness, safety, anonymity. Needed it. Didn’t understand how he could live without it.

He was 26.

Since we last saw him, Driver has been through a fair amount. First he found Elsa, and much in the style of his previous life, went with the flow of traffic and slipped away, disappeared, he thought, from the sights of any unwarranted gun-sight attention. He became Paul West, set up a rental company supplying cars, ate his hot slice of middle America, though not without a mocking irony and humour that he and Elsa both shared; two frontiersmen against society.

Now that she is dead (which happens on the first page, so don’t worry), he re-evaluates. Recognises that his past has come back to destroy him, for a reason he doesn’t yet know. Like him, we attempt to piece together ‘the facts’ and what we ‘know’, consolidating this knowledge with the unknown, a mystery of apophenia formed into a recognisable, understandable pattern.

In the first instalment, the stunt-driver was a substitute for the actor, and the actor, in turn, a substitute for the person, opening up a hollow, an abyss peopled only with disconnections, distances, vague notions of humanity. This lingering, over the death of Elsa, creates another removal from these substitutions, and almost a split personality, because now there’s Paul West, happily hiding in plain sight, to enjoy a “normal” existence, and then Driver, always wanting to move on, melting through metronomic time, constantly questioning, creating the conditions of his eventual over-coming.

After this opening, Driver is, against character, driven around in cabs. Worryingly, doesn’t drive anymore. And, until he gets back behind the wheel, he does not have control. (Metaphor, anyone?) But the style is never heavy-handed, or as cheesey as I have suggested. It is more pondering in its outlook, often subtle. There are, however, several passages of social comment barely disguised as plot. Yet these are some of his most effective moments, meat added to the bones of the story.

We get Sallis unleashing on all manner of subjects from atheism to iPods; the anthropological insights of visiting shopping centres, watching from within the sweating glass malls, the self-contained Petri dish of the capitalist elixir; life festering, stabilising, self-medicating.

Driver walks among the crowds, as one of them, confused by the desire of many to ostentatiously appear ‘different’: “Those who wore their exception like a billboard were a puzzle to Driver.” The truly different, he seems to point out, are the ones who stand back and avoid observation, without being seen. Half-commentary, half-character development, Driver is a modern Outsider silently surveying the vapidity of the modern age, without judging it, giving Driven this flavour of a ‘novel for the misunderstood.’

Part of the enjoyment is that Sallis genuinely relishes the forming of his protagonist, the “man exempt”. He reveals glints of humour, misanthropy and legend, some that sound like personal polemics, but are always entertaining.

Driven seems to be his statement, about a man recognising his desire to leave a mark in the world, and that all people require the same, one way or another, in this respect. Manny speaks of petroglyphs and cave paintings, then graffiti, stickers and teenage scratchings on rock. And beyond that, Sallis ponders this unrelenting erosion of time, on things natural and unnatural, riverbed rock and laminate alike, placing Driver amongst all of it, trying to understand it through him.

Similar to all his works, Sallis’ characters often sit down and talk about ‘real’ things, skipping small, much in this manner. The digressions that make his worlds more believable, his fiction less false. Cause and effect. Meaning and meaninglessness. The in-between of knowing and not-knowing. Purgatory of the spirit, purgatory of the intellect. Agnostic, unsure, uncertain, and unwilling to fall either side of the fence, because no-one can really say either way. The being in between. It is a question of belief and non-belief, and whether any of it can be controlled, and because his characters are often not presumptuous or arrogant enough to believe, they consider and think instead, always open to observe new developments and adapt.

“It’s in our nature – in our bones, our spleen, our amygdyla, or wherever we’ve gone to locating the ineffable this year – to try to connect the dots,” Manny said. “Just as it is to go rummaging around in the dark for that one idea that explains everything. Economics. Religion. Conspiracy. String theory.”

Odd images are dropped in to form this collage, like a Harmony Korine film of haunted, yellow Formica America.

He watched as a light-skinned man passed on the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt with We Are All Illegal Aliens in bold capitals front and back.

Developing from Drive, Sallis seems more concerned with future than past, but recognising, through its unrelenting rhythm, that the present is the legacy. The remnants of existence becoming memory. And more so in this sequel, Sallis attempts a blend of the before, the now and the after, into the same moment of storytelling.

Many events of Drive are recounted, re-made, allowing it to become a work that can stand alone. In this sense, Driven functions as both a sequel and a prequel, not just from its going back to the origin-story of Driver, but also for its skipping to much later on, when he’s 32 and more weathered of face. Whereas Drive was sudden, written in the now, as if typed as it happened, Driven appears more aware of its own legacy, aware of its own place in time. This is perhaps Sallis leaving another marker behind, and he achieves this effect through Manny and Shannon who also return to deliver this commentary, the two characters functioning as the outlet for much head-shaking and tut-tutting at the direction we are headed.

We go through our lives agonizing over income or what others think, getting wound up about Betty LaButt’s new CD, who shot or fucked Insert-name-here on some TV show, or the latest skinny on the latest idiot with cheekbones who’s making a run for office, and all the while, governments go on killing their citizens, children die from food additives and advertising, women get beaten or worse, meth labs are taking over the rural south the way kudzu once did, and we’re getting lies spoon fed to us at every turn.

“The most interesting thing about us as a species may be all the ways we figure out so we don’t have to think about those things.”

This from the man who spent most of his life writing crap movies. Well, mostly crap anyway.

Sallis, evolving like his protagonist, also develops the philosophy of Drive. Driver seems less interested in objective truth, and more fervently attacks the idea of ignorant ‘belief’:

“He didn’t think Shannon believed in any kind of truth that you could put in a box and take home with you.”

“Opinions are like assholes,” Shannon used to say, “everybody has one. But convictions, that’s a different horse – convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

Things have certainly changed since the Camus-accented Drive. Sallis’ Outsider does not believe in “Truth”, only adaptation, over-coming, and not merely accepting, but loving one’s fate. Thus culminating in a satisfying end that winks at a third and possibly final act.