Hardcover Publisher: Poison Pen Press (September 1, 2005)
Softcover Publisher: Mariner Books (August 30, 2011)
Audiobook Publisher: Blackstone Audio (August 1, 2007)
Every year, the L.A. Times Festival of Books arrives on Spring’s doorstep of April. For a family of readers, it’s been an annual event in my household for more than a dozen years. Plus, meeting up with book bloggers like Jen Forbus, Pop Culture Nerd, and the Scientist Gone Wordy in the last few years at this gathering has turned out to be an unexpected icing on the cake. As I knew it would, the most recent fest on USC’s campus was no less thrilling. For this, I thought a change-up was in order and suggested as much to my co-contributor for this month’s you-know-what post.
With that, we’ve arrived again at that time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to execute another of our reviews in parallel. However, we will break new ground (as promised) here. Normally, the wordy one looks at the text of a well-known novel later adapted to the screen, which I then review. Not this time buckaroos.
I’ll do the reading/listening (as I’ll also cover the audiobook) of the source literary material for one of my favorite films of 2011. It will be Rachel’s turn to perform the film review task in this tour of duty. And it will be the young and remarkable Dane director, Nicolas Winding Refn, and his stunning film, Drive, that will be in her sights. Author James Sallis‘ similarly titled novel (or much closer in size to what some of us would call a novella) will receive my less-practiced inkhorn scrutiny.
Rachel’s film review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the book: a lean, taciturn young man drives cars to make a living in the City of the Angels. His standard reply, “I drive.“, doesn’t make it any clearer than that. The thus named Driver performs stunt work for the L.A. movie companies and he’s very good at it. However, it’s his equally adept secondary occupation that holds the most risk. He is the go-to guy for professional wheel-work in the city’s underbelly most of us hide from. Planning a robbery? The Driver will get you from here to there and out of law enforcement’s clutches. He doesn’t carry a gun or take part in the illegal act other than drive. However, this time he’s left in the middle of a heist gone wrong (now I ask you, is there any other type?). And being double-crossed is not in this guy’s repertoire, literally.
[spoiler warning: you don't know what I'm going to write or reveal in this because I'm steering through it all with my knees, so beware]
“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…” ~ opening lines in Drive.
If there’s anything I love more, at least in terms of reading, it is a svelte, fast paced novella. And this one fits that description like a cozy well-worn tee-shirt. In this case, one that has a good bit of blood on it. Nothing is wasted when it comes to language, nuance (Y’know, I’ve always liked that word… “nuance”… so rarely have an opportunity to use it in a sentence), and getting to the damn point of the story. Author James Sallis is confident enough to let his carefully chosen words, and his tight-lipped protagonist, do the rest. More power to him since reading this book accomplishes that in spades.
This is my first Sallis novel. It should tell you something I’ve already have his second, the sequel to this one in fact, teed up for next month. That’s how much I enjoyed the writer’s brief stroll down the noirish side streets of L.A., along with the back-and-forth to the wonderfully and appropriately named city of Phoenix just over the state line (where Sallis now lives). I guess I should have expected as much, given that this 2005 novel spawned the 2011 film (and which exploits that aspect since movies and books dot the plot landscape throughout the written material).
“Driver wasn’t much of a reader. Wasn’t much of a movie person either, you came right down to it. He’d liked Road House, but that was a long time back. He never went to see movies he drove for, but sometimes, after hanging out with the screenwriters, who tended to be the other guys on the set with nothing much to do for most of the day, he’d read the book they were based on. Don’t ask him why.”
When you have a novel dedicated, “To Ed McBain, Donald Westlake and Larry Block — three great American writers“, you begin to get the idea you know what writer of that inscription has in store for those opening the book. Sallis didn’t disappoint on that regard. He probably should have thrown in Jim Thompson, too, for that matter in the pages (what there are of them) in his elegant little tome. Since his primary character, only referred to as “Driver” throughout the novella mentions Westlake’s alter-ego of Richard Stark, you do get the idea the author is very much aware of the kind of story he’s written. The influence of Parker on Sallis’ anti-hero is clear. The results made for a quick, highly enjoyable read.
This being my first exposure with the author, I got the sense there was a bit of the poet in his writing style. At least with his use of long and short sentences he has here. Not that they alternate in sequence that way, but the approach and results of his words have a flow and a recognizable meter to them. I found I could blow through the pages, then catch myself going back to re-read stretches to see if I got what I thought out of them. Something I did long ago when I had some poetry to get done (probably from some lit class long forgotten). Mind you, those sessions didn’t have anything to do with moonshiners’ turns, stuntmen’s tricks, or the effects of what a tight wire can do to a person’s throat.
Drive‘s tale is not entirely like screenwriter Hossein Amini‘s take from the film. There are similarities of course, like Ryan Gosling’s youthful appearance and laconic but not unfunny manner as “Driver”. Nor would you be unacquainted with Bernie Rose’s weary but lethal ways. Still, the differences are what make the book an interesting experience whether you’ve seen the Nicolas Winding Refn‘s film or not. Certainly, there’s nothing like Cary Mulligan’s Irene in this book. ‘Irina’, the mother to Benicio, who does haunt the pages is the Latina one would have expected in real life for that bad luck character that is/was her husband, and certainly a touch more tragic.
“We were married for about ten minutes. His name is Standard Guzman. First time I met him I asked, ‘Well, is there a deluxe Guzman somewhere around?’ and he just looked at me, didn’t get it all.”
This book, one that tells its story in alternating chapters of present and past, is a very good, undeniably quick, affair in the end. For sure, the reader is left wanting more, but not feeling there’s something missing. Additionally, this southwestern tale had the added pleasure, for slow pager-turners like me, of a brisk fun read and none the worst for wear of it. Yet, it also delivers something quite familiar. I’m speaking for those pulp or noir readers who’ll find James Sallis spare prose a perfect fit with the darkened alleys it visits; joining those already well-regarded in this genre. I think the more clued in on the characters in the grim streetscapes of neo noir will get a Hell of a lot more from this willowy work than they’d expect. And I mean that literally. This thing punches with distinct action and desolation that’s as stunning as its quick rendering.
Since this volume and its accompanying audiobook are both short affairs (even uncut and unabridged), I decided I easily had time to read and listen to both. I think the studio managers choose wisely when they paired narrator Paul Michael Garcia with the Sallis novel. This was my second experience with the reader, his splendid performance with Charlie Huston’s The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death a couple of years back being the first. His vocalizations certainly matched up well with most of the main characters, particularly Driver, Bernie, and surprisingly (given her brief tenure in the concise work) of Irina, at least for this listener.
Mr. Garcia’s manner with the prose and attitude on the page was spot on, and worth a rewind or two for the pleasure of re-experiencing more than a few sections of the audio version. If I had any difficulty (and it’s a minor quibble in audio or written form), the alternating swings through time in the source material made picking up the story a tad bit of a chore during chapter changes. Still, this narrator did make the effort well worth the time.
Parallel Post Series
- The Big Sleep
- The Maltese Falcon
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Hunt for Red October
- The Day of The Jackal
- Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return)
- Starship Troopers
- Jurassic Park
- Free Fall
- Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home)
- Devil in a Blue Dress
- Angel Heart (aka Falling Angel)
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Princess Bride
- A Scanner Darkly
- Children of Men
- Minority Report