Drive, and Driven, by James Sallis
How to mark one’s 25th birthday? For the general public, the answer can frequently be found in booze. For No Exit Press, the solution is a little grander. To celebrate a quarter-century of successful independent crime writing, they’re re-issuing the back catalogue of James Sallis, the connoisseur’s crime writer of choice. Re-printed in uniformly moody style, Sallis’ older material re-appears here alongside Driven, the sequel to acclaimed and cinema-adapted Drive.
Drive introduces us to the unnamed hero known only as ‘Driver.’ A driver of stunt vehicles and getaway cars, he lives life as he has always known it – characterised by impermanent, fractured relationships, and by violence. He is no outcast though, with his existence quite intentionally set apart from that of his fellow man. He is “off the grid” in the more prosaic sense, evading the agencies of state, but also profoundly isolated. His friendships – and there are some – are not sharing of mutual experience, but simply periods during which two individuals “walk alongside each other.”
The story, as much as the book is concerned with one, is of a job gone awry, following which he is called upon to defend his life, often at the expense of the lives of would-be assassins. Despite the yawning seven year gap between publications (reflected in real-time in the story), Driven picks up perfectly where Drive leaves off. Driver is unable to escape his past, with marauding killers continuing to hunt him.
Throughout both books, Sallis strives for authenticity. Not the kind of pedantic demands for accuracy which can characterise police procedurals, or the true depiction of place which can be found in great crime, but a more profound, almost spiritual authenticity. Sallis aims to capture the spirit of isolation and alienation which, perversely, is common to us all in some way. Do organised crime figures talk in the way Sallis has them talk? Quite probably not. His dialogue is somewhere in between Quentin Tarantino and Albert Camus, off-beat and thematically rich, but perhaps not a realistic representation of gangland exchanges. Still, this is hardly the point. There is no shortage of crime writing that strives to nail down the detail, but for the crime writing with such a solemn, philosophical flourish, Sallis really is the only show in town. Other than perhaps Bruen, no other crime writer comes close to writing which is so distinctly their own.
The philosophical tag is no idle one either. Sallis frequently has his characters name-check Nietzsche, and the books are overtly existentialist.
“I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.”
It is hard to miss the undertone here. Driver exists, all else is dust and air. He is not immoral, but amoral in the proper sense – morality is not even a consideration. No joy is taken in killing, nor does any remorse follow it.
Sallis is far too smart to simply paint with one brush however, and the books are filled with metaphor, observations and political thinking. Despite this, there is no proselytising. Even when Sallis unabashedly drops in his own political beliefs in the form of dialogue, there is no sense that he is seeking to convert the reader. Sallis’ goal is to provoke thought, not agreement.
It is often said that in good crime writing, the crime becomes secondary, but nowhere is that more the case than in Drive and Driven. Sallis looks at the genre divide and urges us to tear down this wall. While the violence is frequent and graphic, it is also incidental. Driver’s line of work is of little significance, the simple fact of his existence is of far greater importance.
For this reason, Drive and Driven will make thoroughly satisfying reading for crime fans, literary fiction lovers, and even poetry fans – poetry traditionally the preserve of writers able to draw such potency from so few words. These books are sublime, soulful, and essential.