Drive Like Hell
by Dallas Hudgens
Published by Scribner
3 Out of 5 Stars
Luke's lust for driving was inspired by late night rides in his father's '66 Chevelle Super Sport. During the wee A.M. hours somewhere on the back roads of a small town in Georgia, his father, Lyndell, would take his then 10 year old son along as he drank, smoked, engaged in some light B & E, imparted questionable nuggets of wisdom about life and women, and taught him to drive like hell. At 16 years old, Luke Fulmer now has only one thing on his mind: getting his driver's license so he can be like dear old dad. As a result, Luke's driving days are numbered when he's caught in a stolen car (he "borrowed" it from his neighbor) with marijuana, an air pistol, and contraband during an ill-fated attempt to get retribution against his mother's lowlife ex-boyfriend for stealing their RCA television. Now Luke has a suspended license and six months to prove to the judge that he can get his act together before he can drive again.
Drive Like Hell is an okay book with some strong points. It's well-written and very clearly rooted in a particular time and place (although sometimes desperately so; the characters take every opportunity to mention as many television shows, movies and songs as possible). However, one of the strongest points--realistic characters, is also the reason why I did not enjoy the book more. The novel is about the type of people for whom I have no sympathy. This family doesn't live on the brink of poverty: they have jobs, they have a house, they have vehicles, they have television, they apparently have plenty of money for booze, cigarettes, marijuana and food. There's no indication of any "want" here. It's almost as if Hudgens didn't want us to dislike this group of rednecks and so pulls his punches in terms of emotional neglect or criminal activity: mom's a beautiful slut with a heart of gold, but she cares; dad is a shiftless drunk, but he cares; big brother is a small time drug dealer, but he cares. These are the type of people who create drama to simply alleviate the boredom of small town Southern life and instead of channeling all of that energy into something productive, they purposely screw things up the very minute life seems to be headed in an okay direction. They're scared of success. They're scared of doing better. They've mistaken being ever-so-slightly on the wrong side of the law as "having character." In other words, this isn't the Dolly clan from Daniel Woodrell's superior Winter's Bone.
In Winter's Bone, we have a family who is shaped and created by poverty, whose meanness of spirit and unapologetic grit in the face of adversity is not chosen, but tools necessary for survival. We feel pity for them because life dealt them a shit hand in a shit place and has given them a shit chance of ever doing better. To hang onto even a shred of dignity, as the teenage Ree Dolly does, is a miracle in such circumstances. Compared to the Dollys, the Fulmers of Drive Like Hell seem like a whiny ass bunch of rednecks who just need to get off the damn porch because life for them just isn't that bad. Heck, it's not even that boring where they live--why, in the course of 300+ pages, young Luke has met Jack Nicklaus at a Waffle House, smoked marijuana in Paul Newman's car while Newman stays at the local Holiday Inn, and met a football legend.
Yes, these types of people exist, but I'm not sure why we needed a story about them. By the end, no one is transformed, no one rises above, we have a bildungsroman that is severely short on the "bildung" as young Luke seems to have learned very little about life by the novel's ambiguous end (he's even late for the court date at which his license might be reinstated). He doesn't realize he wants to be the catcher in the rye--he doesn't have an epiphany of any kind that's worth two bits. We can be pretty sure that young Luke will be out there driving like hell as soon as possible. So why did we ever go along for the ride?