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Drive by James Sallis: A Book Review

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Well, here we are again to review another novel. As you can see from the image I've selected and the face of the recognizable screen actor, the novel was made into a movie. But we are not, here, concerned with the movie. I simply could not find another image of the book itself... Yada, yada, yada. Details, details, details.

Let's get to it then. This is another crime novel by James Sallis. The first thing to say about it is that it is, again, extremely short by today's standards (and perhaps even the standards of decades past), at a breezy one-hundred-fifty pages (actually slightly less in hardcover). As I alluded to in a previous review, this seems to be a typical length for Mr. Sallis's book-length fiction, so far as I am aware at the present; bear in mind, though, that my familiarity with his work is NOT extensive.

The main character is only known to us as Driver---no proper first, middle, or last name. I suppose it does not matter; perhaps he changes his legal name as often and as relentlessly as he does his residence.

Driver is by profession, a movie stunt driver. As a regular sideline he drives (is the 'wheel man,' I suppose the expression is) for criminals on 'jobs.' He is basically the getaway driver. Per policy---his own---he remains otherwise remote from the heists, hijackings, and robberies the actual, gun-totting thugs carryout.

Driver is a driver, 'the best,' as the say; and he strictly limits his role on those jobs to driving, helping the bad guys get away from the cops, make it back to the hideout, where they can divvy up the 'loot,' 'you sidewinder!"

Driver has a nice routine going. He is good-looking and single, young, 'in the prime of his life,' and all that. He drives for the movies 'by day' (not literally only the daytime) and drives for thieves and murderers 'by night.'

As always I refuse to give away tantalizing portions of the plot; but as you can imagine, something goes wrong---and quickly too, as you would expect with such a short book---with one of the shady jobs Driver plays the wheel man for, Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum....Murderously wrong!

First of all...

First of all, let me say that I am really attracted to the way James Sallis writes. I love the way the man uses prose. I don't want to 'put too fine a point on it,' or anything like that, but the word that comes to my mind as I try to characterize his prose style is silky.

Of course that remark is highly subjective, and if Sallis's work is unknown to you (whoever 'you' may be), it is also a virtually useless abstraction. Sorry about that. I'm just trying to say that if you like words, you should like the way the man puts word to paper. I know, that still doesn't tell you anything; its just that James Sallis is what I would call a prose stylist; not every writer of fiction is.

You know, I sometimes hear the idea that goes something like this: If the writing is good, you shouldn't notice it.

Needless to say, I, personally, do not agree with that view. You see, I am putting Mr. James Sallis on my list of fiction authors, whose very 'way with words,' as it were, never fails to pull me through the story just as much as the happenings of the plot: Mario Puzo ('The Godfather), Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, Colm Toibin (his novel about Henry James, 'The Master), and James Ellroy.


At any event, what should you prepare yourself for when you pick up this book to read it?

1. This is a book that you can probably finish in one sitting.

2. I always define a crime novel as one in which a protagonist is committing a string of crimes throughout the story, and the question is how and whether he will get away with them. His identity is known to us, the readers, from the start. I call a mystery novel a simple 'whodunit.' What is the identity of the killer?

3. Drive by James Sallis is not a mystery because there is no question of 'whodunit.' Strictly speaking, I have to say, that, according to how I have defined the term, this is not really a 'crime' novel either (strictly speaking) because the story arc is absent any countervailing dynamic; there is nothing to suggest that Driver will not 'get away with it'---by 'it,' I mean the vengeful homicidal rampage he goes on after something goes wrong with a criminal driving job.

4. The book is not a thriller in that we are not fed a steady diet of 'action-packed thrills and spills,' presented to the story in momentous fashion. A lot of the story meat comes from recollection; a lot of it---as seem to be typical of Mr. Sallis's work---is internal to the protagonist(s).

5. The book, I suppose in this case, is an actual work of 'suspense' because there is some time-urgency involved: Driver has to kill his newly created enemies before they kill him.

6. I think the appropriate term to use in description of the book is, perhaps, crime drama. You know, I suspect that it is precisely this quality about James Sallis's books in general, which, perhaps inspired one reviewer to make the remark that goes something like this: Some crime fiction is literature and some literature just happens to be crime fiction. I suppose I can go along with that assessment, with this book (Drive) because it is true that all the ruckus emerges out of the dual nature of the life that Driver chooses to lead; and it would be a matter of considerable dramatic investigatory interest to find out why he chooses to lead such a life.

Thank you so much for reading; and do yourself a favor. If you are not acquainted with the work of James Sallis, correct that defect as soon as you can.



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