Review: Driven by James Sallis

For anybody who doesn’t already know it by now, Driven is the sequel to the utterly brilliant Drive by author James Sallis. Unlike a lot of Sallis’ previous work it was released with quite a bit of fanfare. Firstly, because the announcement followed in the wake of Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent adaptation of the original and, secondly, because Drive is considered by many critics to be one of the finest crime novels to be released in recent years (and my opinion of it can be found here).

It begins several years on from the original book, in mid-action. Two men attack Driver, who has now become a businessman called Paul West, and his wife. Driver kills the two men, but not before one of them manages to murder his wife. Driver doesn’t hang around. He immediately drops out of sight, with the help of his war veteran buddy, and starts to hunt those who would hunt him. The harder Driver looks the worse his problems seem to get. The more hit-men he kills the more questions their deaths seem to throw up. Soon he finds himself threatening a succession of lawyers, looking for the man who put the initial hit out, and he finds that it all has to do with the past, though not necessarily in the way that he thinks…

After the relative disappointment of Sallis’ The Killer is Dying , which I read earlier this year I was hoping for a return to the kind of form that made Drive, Death Will Have Your Eyes and the Lew Griffin books such treats. So, did I get what I wanted?

Well, it has as good a start as one could possibly hope for, and throws the reader straight into the action, as hitmen attack Driver and his wife. And from here the pace is relentless, as Driver goes on the run from those who want him dead. Sallis’ prose is as pitch-perfect as ever – pared back, razor-sharp descriptions that spring off the page – and the dialogue crackles, but somewhere along the way it loses this momentum and becomes humdrum.

Drive balanced its action set-pieces and moments of philosophical reflection perfectly, and the narrative drive was spot-on. Driven, however, doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Themes that Sallis touched upon in The Killer is Dying and, to a lesser extent, Drive, concerning mankind’s need for connection and the dehumanising nature of the modern world, reappear here, but sometimes seem to dominate the page rather than weave themselves into the fabric of the story. The number of times I felt jarred out of the narrative because of this was far too many, and after a while I started losing interest.

Then I realised that all these hitmen seem to find it awfully easy to locate Driver, despite the fact that he does his best to drop off the radar again, but not one of them manages to land a single blow on him. This serves to make Driver seem more superhero than noir protagonist. This means the threat and menace that shimmered off the pages of the original just isn’t here, and you feel somehow cheated.

The end of the novel has a nice play on the nature of Chinese whispers. Driver finds out that the initial attack wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, but realises that it no longer matters, because he’s marked for death regardless of what he does. But even though this idea is well implemented it still feels like a false note, because the threat of the hero failing just isn’t there.

I really wish I could recommend Driven, because I so wanted to like it, but I can’t. In all honesty, it didn’t work for me, didn’t take me there. Despite the fluency of the prose, despite the fact that it has been put together with care by a serious artist, I just didn’t feel the story connect with me.

A huge disappointment.

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