A darker shade of noir: Crime, existentialism in Sallis’ ‘Drive’

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

At a tightly coiled 158 pages, James Sallis“Drive” is an effortless read as lean and mean as its protagonist. Don’t let the size of the slim volume fool you, though, there’s nothing light about “Drive.” This is a darker shade of noir.

Many will no doubt recognize the story thanks to the Nicolas Winding Refn film adaptation released last year. The book on which it is based is a somewhat different animal.

Call it “the ‘Die Hard’ effect.” Much as with “Die Hard” – based on the Roderick Thorp novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” – although the book and movie versions of “Drive” are drastically different in places, the spirit of both remains the same. More importantly, and more rarely, neither version is better than the other, despite significant alterations. They’re both good. Just different.

Essentially a character study, “Drive” tells the story of a man working as a Hollywood stunt driver by day and underworld getaway driver by night. A laconic loner living a Spartan existence, this guy’s a blank slate. So blank is he, in fact, that he doesn’t even have a name. He is referred to simply as “Driver.” That’s it. His identity adapts for whatever role he must fill at any given moment. He is defined solely by what he does.

When one of Driver’s criminal exploits goes awry in a decidedly bloody and spectacular fashion, he finds himself on the run with a butt-load of mob money and a target on his back. Though the plot is basically the same as in the film, the sequence of events is different, as is the tone.

Sallis’ book is darker but also has a dry, grizzled sense of wit and humor. More human, but less redemptive. More hopeful, but somehow less merciful.

The most notable change is in the character of Driver himself. Whereas in the film he was a strictly reactive personality, here he is more proactive. The focus is less on themes of repression and inevitability and more on unfortunate happenstance and the idea of violence as a means of self-reflection.

Sallis’ prose is sparse, his matter-of-fact approach to bloodshed offering a glimpse into Driver’s loneliness. Sallis’ style is all blunt, unsmiling elegance, brutal and shocking without being graphic or exploitative.

Just as “Drive” the movie marked a neo-noir high point in modern cinema, Sallis’ existentialist crime novel is a contemporary classic in the vein of Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me.” Not for the easily unsettled, but utterly hypnotic to those with a taste for the grim ‘n’ gritty.

5 stars out of 5