Book Review: Drive by James Sallis

After years of being out of print, James Sallis' noir masterpiece Drive—about a stunt-driver/getaway man—is back on the market. Doreen Sheridan reviews both the novella and the movie here!

Originally written in 2005, Drive by James Sallis has been out of print for over a decade, since its last printing following the acclaimed movie of the same name. Now Poisoned Pen Press has brought a beautiful reprint edition back to the market, giving me the chance to evaluate both book and movie together.

Both iterations feature a getaway man known only as Driver. He’s the best there is—precise, prepared and professional. As he lays it out in both book and movie:

“I drive. That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons. I drive.”

By day, he’s a Hollywood stunt driver. Mostly, he keeps to himself, but that changes when he gets to know his neighbor Irina, along with Irina’s son Benicio and Benicio’s dad, Standard. In the book, Irina is Latina, and the relationship between her, Driver and Standard is fairly easygoing, as she and Standard broke up well before he went to prison several years prior to her meeting Driver. In the movie, however, the role went to the very white Casey Mulligan, whose character is rechristened Irene and whose marriage to Standard is still very much valid, if emotionally fraught. 

Driver and Standard eventually decide to pull a job together. In the book, their partnership goes on for a while before things go south. In the movie, their one job is merged with the heist that sets Driver on a quest for revenge, turning him from getaway man to assassin as he tracks down the people who seem to know only how to betray others, refusing to leave him alone despite his best efforts at ending things at least professionally, if not amicably. 

The 2011 film takes the elegantly fractured continuity of Mr Sallis’ noir novel and reframes Driver’s story in a linear framework, slashing certain roles while expanding others for older, famous actors. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s depiction of Driver’s getaway work is impeccable, particularly in his opening sequence. I wasn’t as much a fan of the predictable love triangle indulgences, or of the scenery-chewing by the aforementioned older actors. Most bizarre of all to me was the choice to have Driver get gratuitously violent with a woman he suspects of setting him up, a scene not present or even hinted at in the book. But this adaptation was good enough to win Mr Refn Best Director at Cannes, and the movie overall was considered a critical and commercial success, with a long tail as a cult hit.

In all honesty, I far preferred the novel, with its more painful, less sentimental treatment of Driver’s relationship with Irina and her family, as well as its deeper delve into Driver’s past and what made him the way he is:

Up till the time Driver got his growth about twelve, he was small for his age, an attribute of which his father made full use. The boy could fit easily through small openings, bathroom windows, pet doors and so on, making him a considerable helpmate at his father’s trade, which happened to be burglary. When he did get his growth he got it all at once, shooting up from just below four feet to six-two almost overnight, it seemed. He’d been something of a stranger to and in his body ever since. When he walked, his arms flailed about and he shambled. If he tried to run, often as not he’d trip and fall over. One thing he could do, though, was drive. And he drove like a son of a bitch.

I’m glad I got a chance to experience both book and movie for the first time this year. While the movie was, for me, passable entertainment for its hundred minutes—with several admittedly stylish sequences in both that opening chase scene and the kiss in the elevator—I found its source more compelling, with greater depth and diversity and far less cliched material. It’s easy to see how this spare, almost bleak novella is considered a modern classic, with Driver almost as much Western hero as noir protagonist, a man with no name who rides into town and enforces his harsh but not unwarranted brand of justice. Fitting given that the action takes place almost entirely in California and Arizona, with the arid landscape a constant backdrop for this dark tale of criminal excess and loss.

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