Monday, January 23, 2012

Contemporary Noir Done Right

Book Reviewed: Drive, by James Sallis

There's a lot of things that can go wrong in contemporary noir, and I'm not talking about the plot of the stories.  I'm talking about the writing itself.  Lazy characterization (often reverting to type); cutesy, overly-stylized writing; and too much reliance on mood or tone can all prove fatal to today's noir.  It's easy for this to happen when contemporary authors try too hard to show their love for an popular old style.  For all these reasons, I've never been a particularly big noir fan.  Too often, the high-conceptness of it gets to be too much for me.  But man, has James Sallis proved me wrong in my belief that all contemporary noir is overreaching. 

Drive is a ridiculous book.  Ridiculous in its great writing.  Ridiculous in its artful narrative construction.  Ridiculous in its surprisingly deep incite into the protagonist's mind.  You've probably seen posters or trailers for the new film version of Drive, starring the always-welcome Ryan Gosling.  Well, forget about the movie.  The book is its own thing, and it's pretty damn cool. 

At just over 150 pages, Sallis gets straight to the nitty-gritty, following a bad night had by our main character, a movie-stunt/get-away driver named...well, Driver, obviously.  The book begins right in the thick of things, with the fallout of a double-cross.  From there, Sallis goes back and forth in time, giving us not only the full story of this botched job, but the story of Driver, too.  Driver is fascinating in the way Sallis portrays him.  The book is told almost completely in action.  We see all of Driver's actions, but we almost never get all the way inside his head.  It's a master study of the whole "show, don't tell" advice writers get drilled into their heads.  In fact, this may be the single best example of that advice that I've ever seen.  I'm insanely jealous of the way Sallis handles his writing.

Admittedly, I had a hard time following the plot, even though it's relayed so tightly.  For some reason, in all forms of media - film, books, theater - I have trouble dealing with action plots, especially ones that involve double-crossings and whatnot.  Plot is not my strong point.  Luckily, that hardly mattered this time around.  Would I probably have been just that much more in love with the book if I had known what was going on?  Yeah, probably.  But overall, it didn't matter much to me.  Because I was too in awe of the way Sallis sets up the chronological narrative.  The book weaves forward and backwards in time, so that some chapters set up Driver's tragic backstory, then move right back into the current plot.  It's handled extremely well, and without confusion.  Also, Sallis uses all the potboiler language of the classic noir, but he does it in such a way that it seems artful rather than cheesy. 

I really enjoyed Drive.  I am currently recommending it to every other person I know, although no one seems particularly interested (I blame the movie for this, although I am excited to see it when it comes out on DVD next week).  Seriously, people, read Drive.  It's a lot of fun, but there's also some real meat to it. 

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