BOOK REVIEW – Drive by James Sallis

By Marty Mulrooney


Drive is a 2005 novella by American crime writer James Sallis which was recently adapted into a major motion picture starring Ryan Gosling. Set in L.A, it tells the story of a man known only as ‘Driver’, who is a Hollywood stunt driver for movies by day and a getaway driver for criminals by night. In classic noir fashion he is double-crossed when a robbery goes horrifically wrong, setting in motion a series of events that will irrevocably lead him down a road of revenge and violence, forcing him to break his strictly enforced code. “I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.”

‘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…’

Those who read Drive hot on the heels of the film adaptation will discover a rewarding, if not markedly different storytelling experience. Sallis writes in a dry, clipped style that suits the pulpy subject matter extremely well, starting off with a bloodbath inside a motel north of Phoenix before pulling back to paint the entire picture from the very beginning. Driver is initially drawn as an unsympathetic protagonist, anticipating an attempted carjacking and counteracting it by punching his fist, car key braced between second and third fingers, into the neck of a young tough, before casually driving away. Driver isn’t a man to be messed with… and it’s a shame nobody knows that before it’s too late.

This early moment of shocking violence, casually delivered like an off-the-cuff remark, is almost immediately dismissed by the narrator. In truth, Driver seems like a nice guy, his conversations with a screenwriting buddy over food and drink allowing normalcy to creep back in as though it never left. We are offered glimpses of his past, how he lost his father – and as a result his mother – and how he became a driver in the first place. He is still a blank slate, but the pieces fit together just that little bit better. He’s human no matter how hard he tries to cover it up, to distance himself from humanity. Yet when a job goes wrong and a friend is killed – followed by his friend’s wife in another abruptive, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment – the book becomes an all-out tale of revenge. Driver slips back behind his carefully constructed mask… and the real story begins.

Comparisons to the film are inevitable, yet it must be clear by now for those who have seen the film adaptation that the source material is a different beast entirely. Common themes are shared but the plot itself is largely different, which is undoubtedly for the best. If the book had been translated to the screen as written it probably wouldn’t have been half the film director Nicolas Winding Refn ended up making it – this is just one of those books that couldn’t be done justice with a straight adaptation. I have a new-found respect for the film now I have read where it originated from. They compliment each other beautifully, both offering a wonderful – albeit different flavoured – slice of L.A crime.

Drive is a sublime read, its detached nature reeling you in from the very first page. It offers a glimpse into a terrifying world where right and wrong is stripped down to basics, with a central protagonist who drives in and out of the story like a night terror. At a brief yet salient 187 pages, it will most likely be devoured in one sitting. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Drive so hard-hitting – it sells alienation and displacement like the finest salesman known to man. It won’t be for everyone, but for those wishing to read a crime novel that violently bends convention, look no further.

9 OUT OF 10

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