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On the Road Again: James Sallis’s Neo-Noir Fiction

Robert Lance Snyder


James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes (1997), Drive (2005), and Driven (2012) comprise a triad of neo-noir narratives that exploit but also undercut the American archetype of the open road as a mythic space of possibility. Like picaresque antiheroes, the protagonists of these minimalist novels find themselves caught up in webs of suspicion and pursuit that they can evade only by recourse to perpetual movement. In the course of their peripatetic journeys the main characters find temporary escape from victimization, but ultimately they know only the grey and depleted horizons of landscapes already traversed. In this regard Sallis’s neo-noir fiction reveals an affinity to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

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‘Best times of your life, just you and the road, leaving all the rest of this shit behind.’…
Were they the best times? In many ways, absolutely. Out there loose and free and moving fast, away from everything that works so hard to hold you in place. Once you had that feeling, once it soaked into your bones, you never got over it, and nothing else ever came close.
But sooner or later… you had to pull over and get out of the car.
James Sallis, Driven (36-37; italics in original)

1My title reprises that of Willie Nelson’s 1980 hit song, an ode to the allure of the road and open spaces. The trope, steeped in accounts of earlier journeys by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, is an acknowledged archetype of American literature, one that during the second half of the twentieth century flourished in such books as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (1982). At the core of these road narratives, as scholar Ann Brigham has argued, is always a reimagining of mobility as “the freedom to go anywhere and become anyone” (3), the “open road” figuring as “a mythic space of possibility” (4). That premise also informs three minimalist neo-noir novels by James Sallis: Death Will Have Your Eyes (1997), Drive (2005), and Driven (2012). It is an understatement to say that none qualifies as a romance.

2Seventy-eight years old as of this essay’s inception, Sallis is a man of many talents as documented on his website ( Best known for a series of six novels about African-American private investigator Lew Griffin published between 1992 and 2001, he is the author of eleven other fictional narratives; a half dozen collections of short stories; five books of poetry; a critical biography on Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Chester Himes; three volumes of musicology; a translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin (1948); and articles in various literary quarterlies. In Phoenix, where Sallis has lived for several years, he also performs regularly with the string band Three-Legged Dog. Such diversified accomplishments suggest that Sallis is a Renaissance man who epitomizes the tenets of classical humanism, which exalted the idea of unlimited development in all areas of life. Given that dimension of his multifaceted career, I wish here to explore, if not quite account for, the bleakness of Sallis’s triad of road tales. More specifically I will be contending that, against the backdrop of a morally neutral American landscape, he traces compulsive journeys tied to an earlier mythos of the nation’s highways and byways as offering a liberating though inevitably short-lived escape from a moribund status quo.

  • 1 Sallis in Drive echoes Twain when he refers to truckers as being “the final embodiment of America’s (...)

3Before plunging into this task, we can draw some preliminary guidance from two studies of this cultural form. In the first monograph devoted to “literature of the American highway,” as his book is subtitled, Ronald Primeau recognizes a “rhizomatic multiplicity” in a genre that, inheriting the postulate of the road as signifying a realm of fulfilling promise, later mutated into “a tradition of ambivalence wherein movement itself would become at least as important as reaching a goal” (19). The road trip offers escape from a routinized existence because it “suspends for a while definition according to one’s origins, profession, and geography” (69). In this regard, observes Primeau in his introduction, the monomyth resuscitates the randomness of episodic adventures found in the picaresque: “Like the picaro antihero, protagonists on the road are cut loose from everyday restraints.... As they revel in their wandering, picaro road characters may have difficulty with, or even refuse, reintegration and choose instead to extend their journeys indefinitely” (7). Four years later Rowland A. Sherrill enlarged upon this idea in Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque, including in his “road curriculum” for changes taking place in the second half of the twentieth century a vast array of texts (270). Ultimately, as Sherrill views it, this resurgence of the picaresque calls upon America on the eve of a new millennium to honor its old “habits” of “movement and change” (221). If that is the agenda behind this latest manifestation of a time-honored tradition, Sallis goes unmentioned in this critic’s otherwise encyclopedic coverage of America on the road again. Combining the insights of Primeau and Sherrill, we can extrapolate that the American road narrative is inherently bidirectional. That is, it evokes the idea of unlimited, self-renewing possibility in “light[ing] out for the Territory,”1 as Huck Finn says at the end of Twain’s novel, while it also registers a suspicion that what will be found around the next bend or over the looming horizon may be more of what one is trying to escape.

1. Death Will Have Your Eyes: Reclaiming a Life

4Dubbed on its title page “a novel about spies,” Death concerns an entrenched espiocracy’s efforts to perpetuate itself in the interim between the Cold War’s end in 1991 and what at the time was an unforeseeable future. Taking its cue from an epigraph by Italian poet Cesare Pavese, “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi,” the text suggests an urgency that before our common end we would do well to see things for what they are. That essentially is the protagonist’s quest in Sallis’s narrative. When it opens in the fictional present, David Edwards has been disaffiliated for nine years from an unnamed federal agency that trained him as one of three members of an “elite killer corps” (35). During that period of voluntary separation he has arrived at a juncture in his life where as a mixed-media sculptor he is living contentedly with a woman he loves. When the telephone rings early one morning, he tells Gabrielle that it is a wrong number and goes out for a jog to return the call in privacy. When Edwards asserts that “‘I am no longer in your employ,’” the man at the other end of the line, later identified simply as Johnsson, replies, “‘It will be good to see you again, David’” (6). Immediately afterward, upon subduing two assailants by “dissolving into motion, reflex, reaction” (8), Edwards reflects: “I’d spent years trying to turn myself off, shut the systems down, before I was finally successful. And now the switch had been thrown again: deep within myself, whether or not I wished it, whether or not I accepted it. I was again active, and on standing orders” (8-9). The passage clearly indicates a subliminal, automaton-like return to the trained assassin he once was. The shock of this reversion prompts him then to tell Gabrielle that “‘Everything you know about me, everything you think you know, is false’” (9), before she agrees to leave until such time as he can reunite with her.

5Thus begins the meandering odyssey of Sallis’s former operative as he seeks to come to terms with his conditioned past. The initial and shorter phase of Edwards’s journey takes him by airplane to safe rooms in Memphis and then Dallas where he meets with an informant. During the first leg of this trek, apparently orchestrated by the anonymous agency to test his operational reflexes, David recalls his disillusioning experiences in El Salvador when he realized that “I was becoming what I did—that there was little else, little more, to me” (13). He then admits: “In my years as a soldier (for that’s what we always called ourselves, among ourselves) I lived without personal identity, slipping in and out of roles and temporary lives as easily, and as readily, as others change clothing” (14-15). Two days later Edwards meets with Johnsson at his D.C. office and says that he “‘will not pull down Luc Planchat for you’” (30). The significance of his declaration is that Planchat is one of two other former members of his cadre with a license to kill who, once the program was deactivated, had left government service like David but who recently has resurfaced when he attacked a high-tech electronics research facility in upstate New York as well as military installations elsewhere. The decommissioned espiocracy that Johnsson still heads wants Sallis’s protagonist to flush out this rogue agent. The scene of David’s interview with Johnsson attests to the progress he has made in forging a new life:

‘It’s not what I do, sir.’
He looked at me for several moments.
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I suppose it is possible that nine years can change a man, perhaps even past the point of recognition.’
‘Or in that time, the man can change himself.’ (32; italics in original)

6A few moments later, when Johnsson falteringly shakes hands, he apologizes for his fumbling by stating, “‘Forgive me.... I forget, and you could not have known. But for several years now I have been quite blind’” (33). In light of the Pavese-inspired title of Sallis’s novel, the detail resonates to indicate this career espiocrat’s inability to see things for what they are.

7The second and much longer phase of David Edwards’s odyssey limns what Kelsie Donnelly has analyzed as his Sartrean progress toward the discovery of meaning in his life to date. David’s hard-wrung decision to participate in the agency’s search for Planchat but only on his own terms is leavened when, at Johnsson’s suggestion, he visits an old friend and mentor, now sixty-two, named Blaise. Bolstered by this renewed contact with a man he trusts, Edwards stipulates to Johnsson that “‘I go out alone, completely alone, or I don’t go out at all. And ... if I should happen to find someone behind me, I’ll assume he doesn’t belong there’” (47). That bargain struck, though he has little reason to expect that the post-Cold War mandarin will honor it, Sallis’s protagonist sets out on an impromptu road trip through the South. “Assume there is purpose, connection, because you must start somewhere,” says Edwards, the configuration of his own face seeming like “a Venn diagram overlaying … Planchat’s” (49). That existential orientation leads him to embark on a reenactment of what he knows to be congruent with an American myth:

The road gives us release, reaffirms the discontinuity of our lives, whispers to us that we are after all free, that (around this curve, when we reach the next town, if we can only make it to California) things will change. Twain and Kerouac both knew the great American novel would have to be a book of the road. So did James Fenimore Cooper, before there were roads. (62; italics in original)

  • 2 Upon learning from Johnsson about Kandinsky’s shadowy past, Edwards registers his confusion: “That (...)

8In the course of David’s journey from Baltimore through the Deep South, he discovers that he is being shadowed either by Planchat or by a man named Michael Kandinsky, the latter being the son of a widowed Russian émigré whose wife Edwards had saved from execution while on Cyprus in the 1970s. Because Kandinsky’s deceased father Dmitri had not been able to thank the man responsible for Cybelle’s survival, Michael has taken it upon himself to discharge the debt of gratitude as he had promised. The results of Johnsson’s later computer search of Kandinsky’s background, however, leave David confused about whom he can trust in this post-Cold War reactivation of what John le Carré’s posthumous Silverview (2021) calls “the world’s game” (60).2

9Death deliberately obfuscates this pair of secondary characters to suggest not only the miasma of uncertainty in which both espionage and counter-espionage operate but also that which these activities propagate. When Edwards contacts Johnsson about Planchat’s putative connection to Kandinsky, for example, he is told that Planchat is playing one of two possible roles. “‘Hunter or hunted, you mean,’” surmises David, before adding “‘Mentor…. He might have been one of Michael’s teachers.’” That extrapolation from what could be pure coincidence, though, the protagonist realizes is preposterous: “That it was Michael I’d been hunting from the first—or allowing to hunt me—made no sense. But then, not much else did, either” (100). Temporarily caught up again in the spiraling web of suspicion that characterizes his former vocation, Sallis’s first-person narrator cannot wean himself from ingrained habits of wariness and skepticism.

10Offsetting his relapse to these habits and reinforcing Sallis’s underlying faith are humanizing encounters that David experiences while en route south. The first of these involves a flirtatious woman named Alicia, a waitress he meets at a truckers’ cafe in Virginia, who tells him that “‘There’s something in you,… something you keep hidden. Dangerous, maybe…. But it wouldn’t matter how well or how long I knew you, would it? That something would always stay hidden’” (63). After his departure Edwards then eludes two vehicles tracking his mid-1970s Datsun 240Z before recalling, while resuming his journey through “the very heartland of America” (70), his earlier relationship with Carol, a self-denying photographer haunted by Tom Waits’s mournful blues music, who one day failed to return to their shared studio loft. After encountering Michael Kandinsky in North Carolina, he is forced off the road into a ditch by two pursuers. Rendering unconscious the younger of the pair, he finds himself trying to resuscitate Adrian, the older man’s surrogate son, via mouth-to-mouth first aid. When that effort attesting to David’s still-intact capacity for empathy fails, he says of the experience at the novel’s midpoint:

It was real: I’d seen too many bodies, too many cities gnawed at by flame, too many blank faces and shutdown lives, for it to be anything less. But until that moment my own two lives—the old one, which had embraced these things, which was defined by them; and the new, which at first denied them, later and at best strove somehow to understand them, to incorporate them, to absorb them—had not come together. (95)

  • 3 The measure of David’s empathy for Jeanne can be gauged from how he reflects on her post-operative (...)

11Dropped off by Adrian’s mentor in a nearby town, Sallis’s wayfarer then enters Norma’s Café, “remembering the beginning of The Postman Always Rings Twice” (102), where he is accosted by a deranged Cherokee veteran of the Vietnam War. After overcoming his attacker, again relying on Eastern martial-arts techniques, he declines to press charges and resumes his journey in a used Volkswagen Beetle. The final episode before David reaches New Orleans occurs in Piltdown, Alabama, where he meets an itinerant lounge singer named Jeanne whose emotional scarring, loneliness, and fear of death he seeks to alleviate through physical intimacy.3 All these experiences would seem to reinforce the Nietzschean admonition to merge everything we have lived through, including errors and delusions, into a new goal of liberated autonomy.

12Balancing this injunction is Donnelly’s insightful point that “The spy is, in some ways, the existentialist man personified as he scrutinises existence and finds ‘meaning’ only in temporary ‘truths’ rather than in unambiguous absolutes” (48). David’s reflection as a former agent on his encounter with Jeanne (see endnote 3) shows a carryover of this way of thinking, but it is only when he converses with Luc Planchat face to face in New Orleans, arriving there while thinking about “assignments and missions and fool’s errands” (132), that he is able to surmount a situational form of relativism. On the eve of reaching the city where Gabrielle has family members, he also recognizes a seminal difference between Johnsson’s formative era and the present time: “No more Cold War, no Big Bad Bear. When society has no further need of the warriors it has created, do they perhaps come to be perceived as a threat? Does that society come to believe that it must … find some way to set them against one another?” (134; italics in original).

13Edwards’s unexpected reunion with Planchat, which occurs after Blaise has ensured Gabrielle’s safety, constitutes the novel’s formal climax and is significant because neither man has succumbed to the agency’s blandishments to eliminate the other. Over coffee au lait and fresh beignets in David’s hotel room, the two former members of Johnsson’s “elite killer corps” recognize their situation for what it is. Addressing Edwards as “‘old friend’” and expressing his admiration for David’s work as a sculptor, Planchat initiates their conversation by saying, “‘It’s not at all of any real importance whatsoever that we survive, you know…. Either the race itself—or you and I individually’” (170, 171). Later that day, sensing “Circles inside circles,” the two men decide in the narrator’s words that “It seemed best … simply for me to continue what I’d been doing all along: remain visible, stay in the open, wait for storms to come down. As far as we knew, whoever was out there had no idea of Planchat’s presence” (174). Before the novel’s denouement, however, Luc admits that during his ten years of separation from the covert federal agency he has missed the electrifying frisson of his former operational life. It was, he confesses, “‘the only thing that ever brought me joy.’” Thinks David upon this admission, “I knew then that it was Luc, not myself, who would die” (175).

14The premonition proves correct. In the novel’s penultimate chapter Sallis records that “They came in fast when they came” the following afternoon (176). After Edwards dispatches the two attackers, Planchat joins him only to be shot in the forehead by a rooftop sniper. Huddled for shelter near a parked car, David then sees a body tumbling to earth through the limbs of a tree. Garotted, he thinks upon examining the corpse, before hearing a woman denounce the victim as phallic “garbage” (177). Apparently the man was her former and unfaithful consort, and she, David realizes, “was indeed one of us, with Planchat and myself…. The program’s rumored third survivor” (180). Before this discovery, however, the unnamed woman makes clear to Sallis’s protagonist the absurdity of the mission on which Johnsson had solicited David’s participation: “‘This really has nothing to do with you,’ she said. ‘It was Planchat—Planchat altogether from the start of it. Something from a long time ago, probably now we’ll never know what. Not that it could possibly matter’” (178). So much, then, for the rationality of those systems of political governance that insist on their need for a bulwark of bureaucratized secrecy and preemptive intervention. Repeating his trope of concentricity just a few pages earlier, David now thinks to himself, “I had been more correct than I knew: circles within circles within circles” (179).

15The brief coda of Death, essentially an epilogue, returns both its narrator and us as readers to a corrective perspective on our lived experience. “To discover what we know, we have only to decide what we will not see…. Every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays” (182). Unless we embrace that ontological wager, suggests Sallis, we are doomed to exist in a realm where, as even Johnsson admits about the institution he supports, there prevails “‘So very much activity … and to so little apparent purpose’” (101). David Edwards’s anchor is finally Gabrielle, and in their reunion at novel’s end Sallis celebrates the gamble of human attachment.

16Andrew Pepper has recently posited that Sallis’s narrative implicitly “ask[s] far-reaching questions about the limits of sovereign power” while dramatizing “the collapse of the categorical distinctions (inside/outside; here/there; friend/enemy; domestic/international) upon which traditional understandings of sovereignty are founded” (“Spy Narratives” 309). After Luc Planchat is killed, Sallis’s protagonist realizes that he “still expected, still wanted, it all to mean something” (180; italics in original), but of course the events as recounted do not. On the other hand, by their very adventitious nature the episodes he has experienced on the road have led him to see the nullity of a career espiocrat’s post-Cold War game of blindman’s bluff and deepened David’s commitment to a woman he loves. In the novel’s final paragraphs he is still “[t]rying to get it right” as a sculptor (183), but his commitment to Gabrielle now orients him to a life worth living.

2. Drive: “I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.”

17More than two decades after the release of Death, in a conversation with Tom Ue, Sallis was asked about what inspired Drive and Driven. He replied: “For years, I’d talked about wanting to write a contemporary equivalent of the old Gold Medal/Lion paperback novels, something with that momentum and muscle, but with a bit more of what French critics call verticality” (94). In an email response about his fiction Sallis wrote on 11 July 2023 that “by verticality I mean penetration: whereas the thriller, e.g., is horizontal (this happens, then this), more ambitious fiction works vertically as well, with a bit more character representation, imagery, depth, complexity.” Such is the case with classic Gold Medal/Lion fictional narratives by Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, and David Goodis that address “the corrosive effects of money, the meaninglessness and absurdity of existence, anxieties about … the bureaucratization of public life” (Pepper, “American Roman Noir” 60).

  • 4 At one point in Drive the protagonist’s birth mother in Tucson is identified as Sandra Daley (42), (...)

18Interestingly it was the very anonymity of Driver as a character that prompted Sallis to write about him.4 In the same interview with Ue the author said, “I started this story not knowing who Driver was, where he came from, how he found his way onto my legal pad and then my computer screen.” Sallis added: “He seems to be a man distanced from life by his nature and personal history, one who’s chosen, for whatever reason, to distance himself even further. Yet, he can’t quite. Driven follows up on that” (95). Such philosophical quandaries prompted Andrew Spicer to write a 2007 essay titled “Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero,” one that without mentioning Sallis illuminates the project he was tackling.

19Driver’s occasional memories of his formative years are sketchy, suggesting a disjunctive or crippling past. His father, a burglar by trade, reportedly “had little use for him” when at age twelve Driver spurted in height “from just below four feet to six-two almost overnight.” The father also “had had little use for his [son’s] mother for a lot longer.”

So Driver wasn’t surprised when one night at the dinner table she went after his old man with butcher and bread knives, one in each fist like a ninja in a red-checked apron. She had one ear off and a wide red mouth drawn in his throat before he could set his coffee cup down. Driver watched, then went on eating his sandwich: Spam and mint jelly on toast. That was about the extent of his mother’s cooking. (9)

20For a brief time afterward Sallis’s protagonist “did what he could” for her (10), later in the novel recording a vignette—whether traceable to memory or imagination Driver is unsure—in which his mother apologizes and says: “Probably I’ve only made your life more complicated. Not what I’d hoped for... Things get so tangled up” (118; italics in original). “Eventually,” however, “the state came in and prised her from the crusted filth of an overstuffed chair complete with antimacassar. Driver they packed off to foster parents, a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Tucson” (10). Although kindly treated by the Smiths, a few days before his sixteenth birthday Driver packed his few possessions, took the spare key to their Ford Galaxie, and after leaving a note embarked for California. Before then, at age nine or ten, he had learned two cardinal rules from his mother: “Always agree” and “Watch closely” (92). Both stand him in good stead when, after arriving in Los Angeles and being befriended by Shannon, the best stunt driver in Hollywood at the time, Driver becomes his protégé. Some years later, having succeeded Shannon after his early death in an on-screen accident, the younger man finds himself much in demand in that same capacity but also as a getaway driver in various heists. When Sallis’s narrative opens, the main character is in a Motel 6 room with three dead bodies, including that of a young woman named Blanche, a duffel bag containing a quarter million dollars, and his carefully crafted life of anonymity in ruins. From this point onward Driver seeks to elude underworld killers seeking reprisal despite his good-faith offer to return the stolen swag.

21Before migrating from one nondescript haven to another, deepening the contemporary road narrative’s motif of rootlessness, Driver had formed friendships with a few people he felt that he could trust. He first met Manny Gilden, a successful screenwriter, on the set of a movie about post-apocalypse America. Deriding producers’ expectations for scripts (“‘Think Virginia Woolf with dead bodies and car chases,’” urges one [6]), Manny loathes “‘the American political system, … New York publishing, our last half-dozen Presidents, every movie made in the last ten years excepting those of the Coen brothers, newspapers, talk radio, American cars, the music industry, media hype, the latest hot thing’” (48). A connoisseur of inexpensive wine varietals, Manny can also provide a puzzled Driver with an exact lexical definition of “desuetude.” Another friend is Doc, who “had spent half a lifetime dispensing marginally legal drugs to the Hollywood crowd before he got shut down and moved to Arizona” (51). Now living in an oversize garage and prone to dosing himself with bourbon, the older man surgically tends to Driver’s arm that he injured when two men came after him and Blanche pursuant to the robbery. Later, upon Doc’s death, Driver leaves his adopted cat named Miss Dickinson with his foster parents in Tucson along with the duffel bag containing nearly $250,000. In terms of personal commitment, however, the protagonist’s most important relationship is with a Latina roughly his own age named Irina and her four-year-old son Benicio, whom Driver meets as his new neighbors at a 1940s apartment complex in old East Hollywood. Irina’s tolerant husband, a professional thief named Standard Guzman, is released from jail the following month, but while assisting Guzman as the wheelman in a few robberies Driver agrees to take care of Irina and Benicio in case of Standard’s death. Several months later, after that eventuality occurs, he forms a close bond with Irina, even telling her about his mother, only to lose her by a stray bullet in a neighborhood shooting. Driver having no legal rights, Benicio is shipped off to grandparents in Mexico City, but after exchanging letters and drawings for a year or more the pair fall out of touch. Once again Driver is alone.

22That, of course, is the ineluctable plight of the neo-noir “man on the run,” all the more dramatic when the only escape is recourse to the road. In the second half of his slender novel Sallis complicates circumstances by Driver’s attempt, while the stolen quarter million dollars is yet in his possession, to return it to a local mobster nicknamed Nino, originally one Isaiah Paolozzi from Brooklyn. Upon migrating to California in 1990 with childhood friend Bernie Rose, technically Bernard Wolfe Rosenwald, “Nino stole home in their new world as though he’d always been here, taking command of an array of pizza parlors, mall-based fast-food concessions, bookie action, enforcement” (101). When Driver first telephones Nino and proposes restitution of the $250,000, he states that “‘We’re professionals. People make deals, they need to stick to them. That’s the way it works, if it’s going to work at all’” (73). Despite agreeing to the arrangement Nino commissions several goons to track down and kill Driver, none of them successful in that endeavor. Because Isaiah Paolozzi defaulted on their agreement, Sallis’s anti-hero has no compunction about confronting him at his Brentwood home at 6:00 a.m. and shooting him between the eyes. Although Bernie Rose, despising California and its culture, had earlier sundered his partnership with Nino, he is reluctantly still a man of principle. Admiring the man known as Driver for his professionalism as well as his code of ethics, Rose yet feels it incumbent on him to discharge a debt of honor that he feels is owed to his childhood friend. Those circumstances prepare for the 2005 novel’s compelling climax.

23Somehow sussing out Driver’s latest habitation at the Blue Flamingo Motel, Bernie Rose calls him to say, “‘Your job’s done, right? Nino’s dead. What’s left on the plate? You see any reason this should go on?’” When Driver responds that “‘It doesn’t have to’” (119), Rose proposes that they meet at a Polish restaurant known as Warszawa. Before departing for the rendezvous, Sallis’s protagonist recalls a rare moment earlier in his Los Angeles career when “a great peace came over him” that prompted Driver to think, “This is what people are talking about when they use words like grace” (120, 121; italics in original). If the interpolated recollection is taken as suggesting an imminent turn in his life, however, the novel’s abrupt finale explodes readers’ expectation. After a cordial dinner the two men go out to an empty parking lot where Driver says to his host, “‘You don’t think we change, then.’” Bernie replies: “‘Change? No. What we do is adapt. Get by. Time you’re ten, twelve years old, it’s pretty much set in you, what you’re going to be like, what your life’s going to be’” (126). The last sentence’s thematic importance is evident from Driver’s recalling it twice in the final pages of Driven (see 135, 147), but a few moments later in Drive, seemingly by way of instantiation, comes this scene:

Bernie Rose stuck out his hand. ‘Guess we won’t be seeing one another again. Take care, boy.’
Reaching to shake, Driver saw the knife—caught the flash of moonlight on it, actually—as Bernie Rose brought it out, left-handed, in a low arc.
He drove his knee hard against Bernie Rose’s arm, caught his wrist as it shot up, and sank the knife into his throat. (127)

  • 5 In an unattributed “Conversation with the Author” included at the end of a reissuance of Drive by P (...)

24If this abrupt peripeteia is not disorienting enough, even more so is Driver’s gnostic reflection immediately thereafter. “Looking into Bernie Rose’s failing eyes, he thought: This is what people mean when they use words like grace” (127).5 He then drives Bernie’s body to a pier, carries it to the Pacific Ocean’s surfline, and gently commits his corpse to an outgoing tide.

25What are readers to make of this conclusion? The most plausible interpretation is that in Bernie Rose the man known as Driver has recognized another like himself who is torn between two antithetical codes in terms of how he tries to live his life. If so, however, he also recognizes that the open road is his only defining matrix. Thus, returning from the ocean’s verge, he once more embraces the “hundreds upon hundreds of miles” ahead of him. Sallis chooses to close his 2005 novel with two short paragraphs:

Far from the end for Driver, this. In years to come, years before he went down at three a.m. on a clear, cool morning in a Tijuana bar, years before Manny Gilden turned his life into a movie, there’d be other killings, other bodies.
Bernie Rose was the only one he ever mourned. (127)

26In a text where, besides his assassination of Nino, the antihero is responsible for at least three other deaths, albeit in self-defense, circumstances and future involvements do not favor his longevity. Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film adaptation of Drive, which was recognized for Best Director that year at the Cannes Film Festival and which in 2012 was nominated in four categories at the BAFTA Film Awards, captures this proleptic dimension of the protagonist’s career well except for one alteration that Refn made in the ending.

27The most expeditious way of addressing this crux is by way of Vi Vo’s short essay in Film Matters on Refn’s auteurist treatment of Sallis’s novel. Vo contends that “Refn’s mise-en-scène supplements the building of character and story in a way that the Sallis text is not able to do. Utilizing a Sartrean approach to aid my analysis of the film’s protagonist, this article will demonstrate how the film’s adaptation surpasses its literary counterpart in developing a complete and human character.” Reading this précis, one is tempted to be skeptical. Since when does an artistic project, given particularly the Heideggerian tenet of Geworfenheit (“thrownness”), require the development of “a complete and human character”? Be that as it may, Vo goes on to fault Sallis’s novel for giving its nameless antihero “barely … any backstory,” rendering him “lifeless” (5). For this critic Refn’s deployment of an “attractive color scheme” (6) and his resurrection of Irina/Benicio at the film’s end allow “the spectator to empathize with the characters and understand them on a transcendental, humanistic level, which was not possible in the source text” (7). Once again, be it noted, those pesky words “transcendental” and “humanistic,” here yoked as equivalents. Could it be possible, one wonders, that Sallis did not want his antihero to be a focus of empathetic identification? In any event, when asked whether Refn’s film and his own novel portray the same world, Sallis diplomatically replied: “Does it look like my novel? No. Does it feel like my novel? Yes” (Ue 94; italics in original). And there, perhaps, the matter should be allowed to rest.

3. Driven: “Always another open road ahead”

28Earlier I noted Sallis’s comment in an interview that Driver “seems to be a man distanced from life by his nature and personal history, one who’s chosen, for whatever reason, to distance himself even further. Yet, he can’t quite. Driven follows up on that.” The 2012 sequel, perhaps prompted in part by Refn’s film of the preceding year, traces its central character’s abortive attempt at age thirty-two to lay claim to an established identity as Paul West. Under that name in Phoenix, given his talents as an automotive mechanic, Driver has built up an inventory of classic cars which, assisted by a secretary and two employees, he leases to Hollywood production studios. When the narrative begins, Driver has just killed two hired assassins, mirroring the opening of Drive involving heist participant Blanche, but not before they have murdered his close companion Elsa Jorgenson. The incident prompts Sallis’s protagonist to contact lone-wolf friend Felix, formerly a Ranger in Desert Storm and before then a bodyguard in East Los Angeles, about going to ground in one of Felix’s many “nondescript houses and duck-holes” (7). That renewed sense of being under siege by forces unknown propels Driver into a vagrant life during which, before metamorphosing for a time into Paul West, he becomes fascinated by malls, as though by visiting them often and eavesdropping on their patrons’ conversations in the food courts he might achieve “some understanding, some sense of belonging” (18). During this interim Driver once more finds himself calling Manny Gilden for insight. The early pages of Driven describe its picaresque antihero as follows: “Wondering about motivations, why he or anybody else did what they did, was something he did his best to steer clear of. How the hell could you ever know? Act, when it was called for. Otherwise, hang back” (23 ).

29Not accidentally the tactical ploys of surging ahead or hanging back are exactly those that Driver employs in the many road-chase escapades found in both of Sallis’s paired narratives. During the interim between the failed attempt on his life that ends with Elsa’s death and his decision to pursue a “normal” existence as Paul West, Driver takes to heart the lesson that “You stayed loose and when the time came, you looked around, saw what was there, went with it. Not that you let things push you, but you moved faster with the current than against” (31). Meanwhile, in a rented bay at Boyd’s Garage, he finishes the job of souping up a 1970s Ford Fairlane that Driver uses to evade a grey Crown Victoria and a pair of men who are shadowing him. Two days later, when approached by one of their associates at a mall, Driver crushes the glib stranger’s trachea, hoping to send a message to those who have him under surveillance. Not long afterwards, while fine-tuning the Fairlane at Boyd’s, he receives a strange invitation to have dinner that evening with James Beil, a Texas-born owner of a restaurant who uncannily recites the history of Driver’s life from age twelve to the present. Baffled by this stranger’s omniscience about his career and “thinking back to what Felix said, they know more about me than anyone should” (58; italics in original), Sallis’s protagonist is also disconcerted by Beil’s comment, “‘You once drove, and now you drive again. Is that recidivism? Adaptive behavior? Or simply returning to what you are?’” (60). In this exchange Driver finds himself out of his depth, his tactical road maneuvers of no use to him. Even more so is that true when the evening ends with Beil’s saying that a solution to the problem of people attempting to kill Driver might be something they have in common.

30Operative once more in Driven, as in Death fifteen years earlier, is the narratological equivalent of “circles within circles within circles,” belying the expectation of linear causation and consequence. At the end of Driven an event that set concatenous gears in motion, like the intermeshed sprockets of a clock, is identified, but until readers arrive at its close Sallis’s 2012 novel compels them to wrestle with a series of vortices radiating elliptically from an epicenter. Driver’s immediate reaction to these multiplying aporias is predictable: “What he wanted was to get back in the car and drive. Drive away from all this” (61). But he cannot, partly because he finds himself being drawn into a friendship with another mechanic named Stephanie Cooper—she goes by Billie and is putting herself through law school at Arizona State University—who when Driver tells her about his mother suggests that she may have been protecting him at age twelve from his father. Billie also intrigues the protagonist because she articulates an issue of consuming interest to him: “‘How much of what we do in our lives, what we think, is chosen, and how much is just what comes at us?’” (70). That conundrum becomes less philosophical for Driver the next morning when his Ford is trapped by two other cars on an isolated stretch of road, a predicament he escapes only by causing a traffic pile-up. As the sound of approaching sirens reaches him, Driver is then approached by a man of military bearing who advises him to leave immediately, assures him that the injured will receive the best hospital care, and urges him to call Mr. Beil at the earliest opportunity.

31The short novel’s second half compounds its whorled intricacy. After Driver recalls Shannon’s statement many years earlier that “‘convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies’” (77), he overcomes a nocturnal assailant in his motel room, wondering after interrogating and allowing him to return by plane to Dallas “what kind of lies was he telling himself, to think he might somehow find a way through all this?” (80). There immediately ensues a succession of bewildering developments that seem to have no intrinsic or logical connection. Outside a mail-service store Driver watches an African-American in his late twenties delivering a padded envelope containing, presumably, the $5,000 his Dallas-based attacker was supposed to receive. Disillusioned by being merely a “gopher” for Genneman, Brewer, and Sims, a firm that hires dozens of lawyers who like himself graduated in the top ten percent of their class, the young man promptly reveals that Joseph Brewer’s administrative assistant, Tim Bresh, delegated the errand to him. Unfaithful to the bureaucracy he serves, Bresh in turn tells Driver that the man he needs to contact is Richard Cole, causing Sallis’s maverick quester, after his experience with Beil as a professed broker or middleman, to wonder: “Was there a wizard for every curtain? Or just one, behind all the curtains?” (94). In the Oz-like world he has entered, the speculation is warranted. When he then arrives on Cole’s doorstep, Driver in his mounting frustration summarily assaults the man. From this point onward to its ending, Driven moves vertiginously, gathering the propulsive speed associated with a classic road narrative.

32The welter of only obliquely linked developments yet suggests a certain inevitability. That process begins when Driver, declining Billie’s offer of her uncle’s unoccupied house as a temporary haven, opts instead for the anonymity of an extended-stay hotel. While there he recalls “standing over Bernie Rose’s body” and “thinking that he drove, that was what he did, that was what he’d always do” (98). Driver then hazards a personal revelation by telling Billie about “how he had stood over Elsa’s body, how in the past he had killed, again and again. How killers were now coming for him” (99-100). That disclosure prompts Billie, readers can infer, to recruit the investigative intervention of her father Bill Cooper, a retired police officer, and his former partner Nate Sanderson. While that effort is afoot, however, Driver continues to pursue a daisy chain of miasmic leads. His confrontation with Richard Cole takes him to a factotum named Raymond Phelps who had orchestrated the money drop at Mail N More, and Phelps readily provides Driver with a folder of miscellaneous records but nothing traceable to an ur-source or point of origination. After Sallis’s marked man subdues another pair of adversaries in a parking lot, Felix tells him that his quarry is a businessman named Gerald Dunaway who relocated from Brooklyn to New Orleans in 1988 and made an illicit fortune after Hurricane Katrina. At this point the narrative’s helter-skelter montage pauses briefly to register a comment by Manny Gilden that encapsulates the novel as a whole:

It’s in our nature—in our bones, our spleen, our amygdyla, or wherever we’ve gone to locating the ineffable this year—to try to connect the dots…. Just as it is to go rummaging around in the dark for that one idea that explains everything. Economics. Religion. Conspiracy. String theory.
….Things happen. They don’t have to add up to more. (116; italics in original)

33“‘And in the long run,’” adds Gilden a few moments later, “‘what does it matter? The question’s always the same: What do you do? How do you act?’” (117). Driver then learns on a return visit to Beil that the person supposedly behind everything is one Benjamin Capel, the owner of a restaurant named Harlow’s, yet when Driver pays a visit to the man in his early seventies who can speak only with the aid of an electrolarynx he learns that the vendetta against him will not be over even when it is called off, everything harking back ultimately to Driver’s killing Nino and his former right-hand man Bernie Rose.

34Three condensed chapters before its end Driven records a face-to-face interview between Gerald Dunaway, whom Felix has tracked down, and Sallis’s narrator/protagonist, a colloquy that reveals the elliptical role of chance and coincidence in human affairs. What Driver learns from Dunaway is that Blanche, the young woman murdered after the heist with which Drive begins, was his only and ne’er-do-well child and that, mistakenly assuming Driver responsible for her death, he activated a process for payback in kind. Somewhere near the epicenter of Sallis’s sequel, then, is a fugitive story of human attachment, but we would err to assume that this accounts for the waywardness of what happens later in life. In the concluding vignette of Driven, having said goodbye to Billie, its picaro finds himself once more on the outward-bound highway outmaneuvering a Chrysler and tag-team BMW. “In the rearview mirror he watched them moving toward him,” read the novel’s concluding lines. “He turned the radio on. He smiled.” And then, as an encore, “He drove” (147). Before that finale, however, readers are told that Manny Gilden sketched out a script “about a man who drove, that was all he did, and about how he came to his end early one morning in a Tijuana bar. A hero for our time, the last frontiersman” (119). Reportedly the movie never got made, but years later Manny revised the script and had it in the hands of his agent. In an intratextual move of fictional displacement and projection, Driven thus anticipates its own timeliness.

4. A Brief Conclusion

  • 6 With regard to the latter text, see Winchell.

35Given the preceding analysis, the first thing that needs to be said is that James Sallis cannot be construed as a postmodernist writer. Unlike such post-World War II “fictionists” as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, and a host of lesser lights, he does not revel in what Barth called late-modernist “used-uppness” in a 1967 essay titled “The Literature of Exhaustion” (29) or celebrate the satirical nihilism of that author’s The End of the Road (1958).6 Instead Sallis takes seriously the idea of voluntary human action and integrity of intention while also recognizing the maze of misinterpretation into which one’s deeds are likely to fall. That fact by itself, however, does not diminish the value of commitment to others in our experience of the world. For that reason Sallis’s triad of narratives discussed here bear an affinity to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) rather than to any example of hermetic postmodernist metafiction.

36That kinship reveals itself not simply in these novels’ use of the road as a structural device but in their main characters’ capacity for survival-prompted endurance. In its early pages McCarthy’s dystopian work recounts an unnamed father and son’s peripatetic wandering in a southward direction, setting out “along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire” (6). Although Sallis’s David Edwards and the man known as Driver navigate the highways alone, in the course of their random migrations they forge bonds with others in whose lives they become invested. Admittedly these liaisons are usually of short duration, owing to external depredations, but they attest to the main characters’ abiding need for human relationship. That yearning does not heroize Sallis’s personae, but it has something to do with why Manny Gilden at the end of Driven is inspired to draft a script that mythicizes his friend as “the last frontiersman.”

37At the end of Drive its protagonist gently commits Bernie Rose’s body to the Pacific Ocean’s outgoing waves. James Sallis has said that he writes of “characters pitched at the very edge of human experience, struggling to survive another breath, and with time to make some kind of sense of this edge upon which they find themselves” (Email). As he views it, the projection of an unbreached frontier in twenty-first-century America is a mythographic vestige of the past. Only movement remains, only driving, only the road to somewhere else than here, wherever that happens to be.

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Barth, John. The End of the Road. Doubleday, 1958.

---. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 220, no. 2, 1967, pp. 29-34.

Brigham, Ann. American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film. U of Virginia P, 2015.

Donnelly, Kelsie. “‘Before You Come Alive, Life Is Nothing; It’s Up to You to Give It a Meaning’: Making Meaning in James Sallis’[s] Death Will Have Your Eyes.” Irish Journal of American Studies, no. 7, 2018, pp. 47-56.

Drive. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, performaces by Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Bryan Cranston. Bold Films, 2011.

James Sallis Web Pages. Accessed 15 Oct 2023.

le Carré, John. Silverview. Viking, 2021.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage, 2006.

Pepper, Andrew. “The American Roman Noir.” The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, edited by Catherine Ross Nickerson, Cambridge UP, 2010, pp. 58-71.

---. “Spy Narratives in Post-9/11 American Culture.” A History of American Crime Fiction, edited by Chris Raczkowski, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 300-12.

Primeau, Ronald. Romance of the Road: The Literature of the American Highway. Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1996.

Sallis, James. Death Will Have Your Eyes. Mulholland Books, 1997.

---. Drive. Poisoned Pen P, 2005.

---. Driven. Poisoned Pen P, 2012.

---. Email. Received by author, 11 July 2023.

Sherrill, Rowland A. Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque. U of Illinois P, 2000.

Spicer, Andrew. “Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero.” The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, edited by Mark T. Conard, UP of Kentucky, 2007, pp. 47-63.

Ue, Tom. “The Question of Closure in James Sallis’[s] and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, vol. 13, no. 1, 2020, pp. 91-96.

Vo, Vi. “A Sartrean Reading of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Driver.” Film Matters, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 5-8.

Winchell, Mark. “Beyond Existentialism; or, The American Novel at the End of the Road.” Modern American Fiction: Form and Function, edited by Thomas Daniel Young. Louisiana State UP, 1989, pp. 225-36.

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1 Sallis in Drive echoes Twain when he refers to truckers as being “the final embodiment of America’s enduring dream of absolute freedom, forever lighting out for the territory” (42).

2 Upon learning from Johnsson about Kandinsky’s shadowy past, Edwards registers his confusion: “That it was Michael I’d been hunting from the first—or allowing to hunt me—made no sense. But then, not much else did, either” (100). On arrival in New Orleans, he summarizes his cognitive dissonance as follows:
1. Maybe Michael was just who and what he claimed, and it
was all over.
2. Maybe Planchat (as Johnsson believed) was dead and out of the picture.
3. Maybe one, or two, or ten other soldiers were even now snuffling across Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans, hot on my trail.
4. Maybe they were sent out, assigned, only to shadow me, to see where I, or whoever else was dogging me, or whoever I in turn was dogging, would lead them.
5. Maybe, like my shadow self back in that Memphis motel room, they were assassins-in-waiting.
6. Maybe none of the above.
7. Maybe all of the above. (134-35; italics in original)
The fourth speculation captures the endlessly receding and indeterminate hall of mirrors to which the game of espionage has often been likened.

3 The measure of David’s empathy for Jeanne can be gauged from how he reflects on her post-operative terror of breast cancer that she describes as being “‘like a flower slowly blooming, opening dark petals, inside me’” (128). A page later he says, “I didn’t think Jeanne’s fantasy (if, finally, it were fantasy) much stranger than others I’ve known. We all create such fictions out of the stuff of our lives, small myths, private lies, that help us go on, help us remain human, reassure us that that we understand our own tiny fragment of the world. But most of us don’t share these myths with strangers. Most of us don’t share them at all. And we believe them while knowing at the same time that they are fictions” (129-30; italics in original).

4 At one point in Drive the protagonist’s birth mother in Tucson is identified as Sandra Daley (42), but there is no textual confirmation that her son would acknowledge that surname.

5 In an unattributed “Conversation with the Author” included at the end of a reissuance of Drive by Poisoned Pen Press in 2022, Sallis was asked how he “balance[d] such a bloody story with Driver’s quieter moments of connection with other characters.” He replied: “Driver is, as are we all, an individual marked by his past—a castaway to a world he doesn’t understand—and trying as best he can to survive. But he has also the desire to rise, to find a better self. (Deeper readings could suggest that I’m writing a parable of grace here.) His world, again as with all of us, manifests on two levels, the public (a violent one) and the private (his connections with others). How does one find a balance? Can one?” (148; italics in original).

6 With regard to the latter text, see Winchell.

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Electronic reference

Robert Lance Snyder, On the Road Again: James Sallis’s Neo-Noir FictionEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 23 July 2024. URL:

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About the author

Robert Lance Snyder

Robert Lance Snyder retired as Professor Emeritus of English at the University of West Georgia, after teaching at Wake Forest University, Georgia Tech, and Seattle Pacific University. Most recently he is the author of John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Fiction (University of Missouri Press, 2017) and Eric Ambler’s Novels: Critiquing Modernity (Lexington Books, 2020), in addition to journal articles on the fiction of Graham Greene, Geoffrey Household, Len Deighton, Adam Hall, Charles McCarry, Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Forsyth, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Ian McEwan, Stella Rimington, Patrick Hamilton, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Dan Fesperman, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, Kenneth Fearing, Paula Hawkins, and James Lee Burke.

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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