James Sallis has been getting some long-overdue attention lately – including a front page story in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. His thriller DRIVE (which should have been an Edgar nominee but wasn’t; Sallis will have to settle for the movie sale he made of it to actor Hugh Jackman ) is just out in paperback.
Here’s what I wrote when it first appeared:
Imagine the black heart of Jim Thompson beating in the poetic chest of James Sallis and you’ll have some idea of the beauty, sadness and power of Drive – the title of which comes from the same Robert Creeley poem which was used by Jeremy Larner for his memorable novel (made into a film directed by Jack Nicholson) Drive, He Said.
Drive is short – a novella – but has more thought, feeling and murderous energy than books twice its length. It’s about a young man called Driver, who escaped from a tragic background in Arizona (where his mother stabbed his abusive father to death) by learning how to turn a car into a way of life. We meet him when he arrives in Los Angeles and quickly – thanks to an expert mentor – becomes a top stunt driver for B-movies.
“The sequences didn’t make much sense to him, but they rarely did,” Sallis tells us. After a first take which pleased everyone but himself, “Second run went like a song. Driver gave himself a little more time to get up to speed, hit the ramp to go up on two wheels as he sailed through the alley, came back down onto four and into a moonshiner’s turn to face the way he’d come… The crew applauded.”
Driver also earns money by driving for carefully selected armed robbers, more often than not turning down a job because he doesn’t trust the people in charge. He makes one big mistake, which results in several deaths by gunshots and a serious injury to his arm. Finding and killing the people who played him for a sucker takes up most of the book – including a remarkable dinner at one of my own favorite restaurants, Warszawa in Santa Monica.
There’s a lot of death in Drive, but its saddest moment comes in a memory which Driver has of himself as a young boy, watching his addled, hard-pressed mother put together a table which she had ordered from a catalogue: “An ugly, cheap-looking, wobbly thing. The room, the world, got very quiet. Both stayed that way for a long time. ‘I just don’t understand,’ Mother said. She sat on the floor still, pliers and screwdrivers ranged about her. Tears streamed down her face. ‘It looked so pretty in the catalog. So pretty. Not at all like this.’ “
For more of the Sallis magic, I heartily recommend THE JAMES SALLIS READER, published last year in a handsome paperback by Point Blank Press. You can usually find a used copy for a fair price at Abebooks.com (where I bought mine: NEWSFLASH! Reviewer Actually Buys A Book!). You should be sure to set your search requirements by lowest price first.