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Drivers by Nathan Leslie


"An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," by Thomas Gray, includes the observation, "The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave." In Nathan Leslie's superb collection of short stories, Drivers, these are not "Paths of Glory," but streets and highways. Life is the only, the ultimate road trip. 

What all the protagonists of Drivers have in common is that they are, literally, drivers or in some other way automobiles or traffic is an important part of their lives. They are drivers of SUV's, of semi's, of tow trucks and Studebaker Starliners. They collect model cars, race radio-controlled model cars, write about racing, study traffic patterns, report traffic news. They drive on beltways, highways of death, side streets in suburban neighborhoods. They run driving schools, learn to drive from a father, teach a daughter to drive, or are terrified of driving. They repair cars, sell cars, work on car upholstery. They escape death, walk away from accidents fatal to others, hit and run, and they die in accidents. Even though the reader is aware that this is a conceit, an extended metaphor that runs through twenty-three stories, not the metaphor, but character is primary in this collection.

Leslie is a master of voices. His first-person narrators range from the tough-talking young girl in "The Pickup Vandal" who says she looks "like a mother-fucking marsupial," to Perry, the car upholsterer and driver who says, "gentlemanliness is the characteristic toward which I strive."

He writes often in the first person, often in third limited. In some longer stories the narrative includes multiple points of view: "29 Old Yancy West," "Oh, Deusenberg," and "The Hit and Run." "The Hit and Run" starts with third-limited and the second part of the story is told from the point of view of the woman who is one of the victims of the accident. The first section focuses on Radford, who runs a driving school for teens that begins the course of study by showing films and videos of accidents some of which videos Radford has made himself. These videos are described, "It's Eisenstein on four wheels. It's Un Chien Andalou with six cylinders." Like many of the stories in Drivers, "The Hit and Run" is layered, complex. Radford, high on coke and alcohol, plows into the Sentra: "And liquids gush: green anti-freeze, oil, water, steam, brake fluid, windshield wiper fluid. And human blood." The icicles, "prisms of light," drip, and, in the car, the woman's face and head are bleeding. Music thumps from the car. Only after reading the woman's story, does the reader learn the significance of the music.

The woman's narrative begins as she talks about events that happened "three weeks ago... This was before the accident, This was before ..." Each of the details in her narration has a poignancy and irony as she worries about safety, as she tells her daughter that "people made me sick. I was referring to the shameless way they behaved in traffic." She talks about the junkies that make her feel unsafe in her neighborhood. Radford isn't the sort of junkie she's afraid of, but he's the one who is responsible for her daughter's death. The final scene she recounts, when she learns to appreciate the music her daughter loves--"I want to understand her," she says to her lover--has images that are picked up in the accident: the beat of music, "water dripping, dripping, dripping down my face into the tub of water."

Throughout the stories, the characters associate driving with time and the inter-connectedness of humankind. The traffic reporter says, "When I first started I wanted to save lives--or at least time, having to face death--and I felt that informing people about bottlenecks or debris on 95 was the best way to make people's lives better." The tow truck driver ("We Get Where We're Going") says about driving, "It's not about speed. It's about time. It's about skinning time and pulling it tight as it will go. It's about being comfortable within that." The narrator of "The Speeder" calls traffic "an accordion" that "pulls you forward...and then it contracts and you're lucky to move at all." His fatalistic view is, "I thought it's just a matter of time, really. What ever is going to happen is going to happen anyway."

The last story in the anthology, "Memorial," begins with a paragraph about a woman who sells the materials for roadside memorials. The rest of the story is a series of first-person narrators who tell about their lives and what they were thinking about when their fatal accident occurred. Each of the speakers is cut off mid-sentence or even mid-word. The effect of so many interrupted narratives makes one conscious of how unexpectedly life can end. The last three of the narratives point us to that reading. One woman dies in her own home, when she pauses in the middle of baking and is hit by the out-of-control meal-delivery truck that crashes through the wall of her home. Another narrator is thinking about all the things over which he has "no control." And as the trooper hits the retaining wall he's "thinking: it's amazing that something can end that quickly. But, yes, it ca--"

Drivers is about families, the connection between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends. It is about vocations and avocations. Drivers is about passionate attention to the world. You'll want to read many of these stories more than once.

Drivers is Nathan Leslie's third collection of short stories. The most recent is A Cold Glass of Milk (Uccelli Press, 2003) and the first is Rants and Raves. His work has appeared in more than a hundred literary magazines. He currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College in Sterling, Virginia, and is the fiction editor for The Pedestal Magazine.

Nathan Leslie, Drivers, Maplewood, New Jersey: Hamilton Stone Editions, 2005. 237 pages, $14.95.