‘Drive’ – book review

James Sallis
No Exit Press, 2011
Originally published 2006

Image from Old Castle Books
I can’t remember whether or not I knew that Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive starring Ryan Gosling was based on a short 2006 novel of the same name before I saw it in HMV as part of a 2 for £5 offer.

Knowing I had the book to read, on Good Friday night, I rewatched the film. I think it’s a pretty great film, to be honest. And the book, I’m pleased to say, comes off similar.

For those unfamiliar with the story, James Sallis’ Drive tells the tale of a young stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire: “I drive. That’s all I do.” As is won’t to happen in such fictions; a job goes bad and the protagonist appears to be in trouble.

Fans of the film will surely like this book; for it simply adds more flesh to the bones of the narrative. Like Goodfellas (1990) opens with an innocuous late-night-drive-cum-bloodied-corpse-in-boot-what-the-hell-just-happened?Drive opens in the middle of the film; a motel room full of blood and (dead) bodies. We then learn about Driver: he “wasn’t much of a reader” except for the books which “the movies he drove for” “were based on”. When he comes across a word he doesn’t understand, he calls his friend Manny – “one of the hottest writers in Hollywood” – for a definition. He drinks.

Essentially, the novel moves along in this format; present-day chapter followed by backstory and repeat. I very rarely read crime fiction, and Drive took me back to much younger days of inhaling Elmore Leonard, making me wonder why I don’t read this genre anymore. (For, truth be told, if I wasn’t already familiar with the film, I wouldn’t give such a book a second glance.) Whilst I wasn’t previously familiar with the author, Sallis’ style – here at least – is what one might expect from a short, punchy tale of money and violence: sentences are clipped, as if the narrative is as keen on sharing itself as might be its criminal cast about themselves.

That said, Driver is not as mysterious as portrayed in the 2011 film. With Manny, he is talkative; we learn of his past and what brought him to Hollywood. We also meet Shannon as “the best driver in the business”, throwing back bourbons and beers. Nonetheless, we do witness early on the violence of which Driver is capable when, in the fifth chapter, he quite possibly kills one of three “young toughs”. Throughout the novel, Driver’s experience of dangerous environments pokes through: “First thing you do, room, bar, restaurant, town or crib, is check and memorize the ways out.”

Personally, I can’t help but compare the novel to Refn’s 2006 film. In both the original book of Donnie Brasco, and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy – on which Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) was based – narrative and characters have been rearranged for the screen. Drive is no different. For example: Standard, father to Benicio, the young son of Driver’s neighbour, Irina (Irene in the film) asks Driver to work a job with him during their routine evenings of late-night television and beer. The story of how Irina and Standard met, meanwhile, is relayed by Irina to Driver before Standard has been released from prison. In fact, the narrative between the two versions differs in multiple ways and so I’d rather not delve much more into it except to sat that, in the novel, something of a Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) vibe takes over in the second half of the book.

All in all, Drive is well worth a read. Those fond of the screen version will doubtless find it a worthwhile way to spend their time. Fans of grubby, gritty, down-and-out crime fiction meanwhile, are guaranteed to get a kick out of this brusk, blood-soaked tale of revenge.

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