by James Sallis
Before I knew it was a book, the film Drive was described to me as Ryan Gosling driving around Los Angeles with a dead look in his eye. Isn’t that reason enough to see a movie? I mean, who’s better than Gosling?
But then I found out that it was based on a book, and that this book was incredibly short, so I stopped watching 30 Rock for a couple hours and checked it out. (I’m just kidding, I’ve moved on to Parks and Rec by now.) There is something to be said for a book that can be finished in one or two sittings, and still have an impact on the reader. Impactful might not be a word, but if it was, it would apply here. Further, the story is chopped up into small events that positioned all out of order, so that a cliffhanger chapter might precede exposition, which might in turn precede the continuation of a previous storyline. To me, this seemed exciting, knowing that anything could happen in the next chapter. In Drive, ‘anything’ usually means someone getting brutally murdered.
On the other hand, it’s hard for me to say what Drive actually means. James Sallis writes a hell of a story, but it goes by so fast it’s almost a blur. There are major characters, relatively speaking, that get a total of maybe five pages. Now, call me old fashioned, but when I’m reading fiction, or even non-fiction, I like a little bit of character development. Even Driver, the title character, is indescribable, except that he’s pretty much a psychopath with a purported set of ethics. For example, the event that drives (!) the book is a heist-gone-wrong, in which Driver ends up with a large amount of money that doesn’t belong to him; he spends the rest of his time trying to give it back. I guess that’s the right thing to do, who knows. But when some youths are hanging around his car, ready to harass him, he doesn’t hesitate to use potentially deadly force. That’s uncool, right? And kind of contradictory?
I guess Drive is supposed to be a post-modern take on the crime/noir genre. The only crime fiction I’ve really read are the books of Elmore Leonard, so I don’t have much experience, but I see some similarities. For one, the characters are all way too cool for school, and even dying characters remain suave till the end, which in real life is probably pretty hard to do.
The post-modern part, I suppose, is that there’s never any real meaning behind anything that happens. Maybe it’s about Driver’s alienation from society; he lives in Los Angeles and has one foot in the movie business and one foot in petty crime, the unifying factor being his unparalleled knack for driving. But he explicitly avoids watching the movies he helps make, and he demonstrates no emotional of financial need to engage in crime, making his life choices somewhat… curious. And again, this is probably some sort of intended message about Driver’s relationship with the city in which he lives, but to me it just seems like an example of style over substance. The style of a crime novel, without any of the character or story. There’s suspense, but given Drive‘s structure, sometimes it’s hard to say what’s happening when.
All things considered I don’t really get why critics seem to love Drive. Sure, it was enjoyable, and that’s worth something, but I can’t really imagine wanting to read it again. I was sometimes confused, and anytime a character or scene was abruptly discarded, I felt extremely let down. Maybe Sallis was trying to write the most frustrating novella ever written, as some sort of statement. Or he wanted to see if he could write a story in which the character’s have zero personality and individuality. I’m not sure. All I know is, I was unimpressed.
Drive is a fast and exciting read, but I don’t think it will change your life. I’m pretty sure you won’t remember it a week after you finish it.