James Sallis : Others of My Kind (2013)

Other of my kind

Back in 2012 I read and reviewed Drive by James Sallis. I’ve been meaning to read more of him ever since and when I saw Others of My Kind at a local book shop I decided to read it.

The narrator of the book is Jenny, a woman who had been abducted as a child and held captive in a box under a bed for a couple of years. When her captor comes home at night, he gets her out, abuses and plays with her.  After managing to escape she lives in mall before she’s found and enters the foster care system. Suing for emancipation she becomes an adult at the age of 16. When the novel opens she works as production editor for a local TV station. One evening, when returning home from work, a detective waits for her in front of her house. Recognizing a fellow loner when she sees one, she asks the handsome detective in and serves him dinner. Right away there’s an intimacy and an understanding between the two. Jack has come to ask Jenny a favour. A twenty year-old woman who has been kept under similar circumstances has been found. The young woman shows signs of trauma and isn’t talking. Jack believes it would help if Jenny spoke to her. She agrees and the incident triggers memoroes of her own past.

Others of My Kind is a slim novel, saying more about the plot would spoil it too much. I found it very unusual in its choice of topic. In a way all of our expectations are turned upside down and we learn to see horrible things form an unexpected angle. I liked the main character Jenny quite a lot. She’s a character who has grown from what has happened to her and who has developed an astonishing capacity for compassion and a genuine ability to do something truly good without asking for anything in return. I found it refreshing that an author attempted to show that horrible circumstances don’t necessarily have to damage a person for life and that he managed to illustrate this without belittling the horrible events that happened in Jenny’s past. The result is a crime novel with an almost Buddhist vibe.

Sallis isn’t your usual crime writer. Not only because his stories are unusual but because of his pared down style. When you pare down sentences and scenes like Sallis, leaving only the most necessary, each and every single of your sentences will have a special power and meaning. Each element is chosen carefully, each scene stripped down to the bare minimum. A lesser writer would achieve something choppy and fragmented, while Sallis reaches another kind of fluidity. 

This book really put me in the mood to read more of him. I want to read The Killer is Dying next but I’m open for other suggestions.

Drive – The Book by James Sallis (2006) and The Movie by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

James Sallis’ taut neo-noir novel Drive is nothing if not surprising. All the more so should you have seen the movie first and now want to read the novel. I had barely finished the book when I watched the movie and it was extremely interesting to see what and how they changed it. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who have read the book first and have not seen the movie yet. I will just mention a few differences.

Sallis’ book is extremely well-crafted and has an interesting structure. I know I will read it again, just because of that. The story can be summarized in a few sentences. At the beginning of the book we see Driver in a pool of blood, three dead bodies next to him. How he got there and why will be revealed in bits and pieces during the novel. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time, only revealing a little in each chapter. The chapters can be read like short stories. They work on their own. This structure and the way information is given, only in the smallest of slices, exemplifies one of the main themes of the book.

Life sends us messages all the time – then sits around laughing over how we’re not gonna be able to figure them out.

Driver is a stunt driver for the movies. He is the best. Driving is what he knows best. His reputation is such that he is contacted by some criminals and hired as the driver for getaway cars in robberies. Driver is non-colloquial to the extent that even his delinquent bosses are stunned. Try to be more mono-syllabic and you’d be reduced to complete silence. Driver doesn’t want to know details. He drives. Period. And tells you that. In very short sentences.

Driver and many other people stay nameless all through the book which symbolizes a lot and mirrors an element of his childhood.

Mostly, when she spoke to him at all, she just called him boy. Need any help with the schoolwork, boy? Got enough clothes, boy? You like those little cans of tuna for lunch, right, boy? and crackers?

With a mother like that no wonder Driver never really attaches any meaning to his name or is much interested in elaborate conversation. This doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in people or relationships. He tries to be with people, he does contact people and hang out with them. He even takes care of some. Despite this lack in open communication, Driver’s interior life is far from empty. Passages like the one below are frequent in the novel.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two oft them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.

It’s rare that I’m this fascinated by a crime novel, this amazed by the writing. After having finished it, I could hardly wait to see the movie.

Maybe it’s lucky book and movie do not have a lot in common. Some story lines that are not very important in the book, have a major importance in the movie. The movie has nothing of the staccato rhythm of storytelling of the novel but delivers the story chronologically, leaving out everything about Drivers’ childhood and developing a major love story.

I didn’t mind those liberties at all because you can see book and movie as two separate things, one serving as a draft to the other. This is one of those movies I see myself re-watching many times. I absolutely loved it and one of the major reasons for that is the soundtrack. This is one of those glossy movies in which picture, story, actors and score form a tight whole and each part is perfect. Remove or change one thing and it would crumble. What I liked best was the extremely soulful, almost dreamlike atmosphere the soundtrack created, those beautiful pictures of the illuminated L.A. skyline at night and the surprisingly tender love story. I have often issues with the cast but it’s perfect in this movie. I couldn’t imagine a better Driver than Ryan Gosling or a better person for Irina than Carey Mulligan.

With a director like Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) it was to be expected that the movie would be visually compelling but not shy away from graphic scenes and strong violence.

You can watch this movie, see the differences with the book and still like it, and you can still admire the book as well.

Probably still under the influence of the movie, I haven’t done the book enough justice. If you want to read more focussed reviews, Guy reviewed it here (that’s the one that made me discover the book) and Max reviewed it here.

Thanks to the major success of this film the books by Sallis are now reissued. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ghost of a Flea. The re-release is due in May 2012.