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.

My favourite crime novels – No. 21

Drive by James Sallis – Until recently, Sallis seemed to be one of those writers who was destined to be known within dedicated crime reader and writer circles and nowhere else. Incredibly well read and knowledgeable about crime fiction, highly intelligent and a fine writer. But that situation changed when Nicholas Winding Refn directed his highly stylised and ultra-cool film adaptation of Sallis’ Drive starring man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling. It helped that it was an excellent film, but the job was made easy by the fact that they had a balls-to-the-wall classic to adapt in the first place.

The premise is simple: Driver (we never know his name) is a getaway driver who works freelance for the highest bidder (in addition to a sideline as a Hollywood stunt driver). He is very much a loner, but is forced out of his shell when his female next door neighbour makes friends with him. She is married with a child but the husband is in prison and she appears to like Driver. Their relationship is complicated when the husband is released from prison and forced by people to whom he owes money to perform a robbery. Driver helps out the husband because of his relationship with the wife and son, but when the job goes wrong he is suddenly forced to go on the run from low-level mobsters with an axe to grind. And slowly but surely he turns from the hunted into the hunter.

Describing the plot of Drive doesn’t really do justice to Sallis’ novel, because it’s simply a framework for a fantastic set of characters and a pared down style which simply demands that you read faster and faster. Also, crucially, it weaves Driver’s back-story into the proceedings, which the film doesn’t do. Despite being a short novel/novella, it packs a lot into its pages. It is a beautifully paced and written novel, and in Driver it has one of the most compelling anti-heroes to emerge in modern crime fiction.

What in the name of all that is Holy…

…is going on with this poster for Drive?

I can’t wait for this film to be released – it looks like it’s gonna be a good ‘un. Except somebody made a serious fucking font malfunction with this bloody poster. The script font (not sure what it is offhand, although I do recognise it) in a garish pink that makes it look like Ryan Gosling is about to do some cruising rather than getaway driving. It’s hardly the most masculine of design choices, is it? A bit of a faux pas for a film that’s meant to reboot the masculine cinema of the 60s and 70s. It’s truly awful stuff, like somebody gave the office junior a chance to strut their stuff, but forgot to proof it afterwards and remove the hideous pink script font and replace it with something suitably cool and modern…

For shame, creative director, for shame.