annotation by Antonia Crane
Instead of a coaster, which is what I use many of my hardcover books for, I keep Drive by Rob Roberge open on my coffee table to use as a road map for great storytelling. It is a book that had a permanent impact on me, like a black and white Herman Leonard photograph. When you look again, you notice something strange and beautiful beneath the smoke, something that you missed before. I use Drive as a vehicle to improve my writing and keep me excited about literature, reading sections compulsively to study the dialogue and scenes on the page.
I’d be lying if I claimed that my adoration for the author had nothing to do with my devotion to the text. Sometimes you get a mentor whose mind and work speaks to you louder than anyone else’s and for me, Rob Roberge is definitely that guy. Regardless of who the author is to me, Drive is an entertaining, smart story about a rogue basketball team lead by painter-turned coach, Ben Thompson. It takes structural and narrative risks that made me re-think the way that stories are told. Drive helped me become a better writer by giving me clues about how to proceed. For instance, my punctuation tends to be sloppy, my dialogue can be elementary and I’m tense-lexic. Drive showed me how to stick with a tense and how play with it, how to vary my sentence structure as though it was music, as well as changing up chapter length. Some chapters in Drive are a paragraph long and they are just as satisfying as longer sections.
Roberge crams texture into his scenes, which reminds me that every section needs sound, dialogue, tension and physical sensation like this: “I can’t miss. It’s been years since I had this feeling. Just you, the ball and the rim. Nothing else exists in the world. It’s like those pictures of the Earth from outer space, only there’s you and a hoop and nothing else. I stop counting and just focus on the rhythm. I’ve got the touch and start shooting threes. The floor shines like a bowling alley, the bleachers rock and creak under the kid’s feet, and everything I throw up falls in like it had eyes.”
Drive showed me how to add layers of life to my pages so that my characters aren’t one-dimensional, silent, or seated – unless they need to be.
Roberge’s sentences buzz and sing with life. It’s the music of lonely, sad people striving to connect and succeed as well as the long road between where they are and where they’re trying to go. Thoughtful, snappy dialogue erupts from the page, but Roberge isn’t only occupied with being clever, he also fleshes out his characters in surprising ways. For example, the ‘man behind the curtain’ is The Chicken Man, aka Rube Parcel, a Hee-Haw suit on TV yapping at insomniacs with the IQ’s of doorknobs, but his logic makes sense. He’s the guy who owns the basketball team. He has corporate, selfish motives, but he’s so logical and true that I couldn’t help but like him. The topless cleaner, Sean who’s writing her dissertation on feminist theory is my cup of tea, but I often disagreed with her, just as I would a real person.
There’s nothing typical or simple about Roberge’s characters or scenes, but his sentences are sharp and clean. He makes basketball sound like Beethoven. Women are hot PhD-wielding topless house cleaners as well as brilliant basketball stars with wrenches who know how to jimmie a broken starter. The action on the basketball court is exciting with a string of characters that the reader instantly cares about.
Drive has all of the humor and camp one expects from Roberge. The larger story he tells is about the subterranean struggles and irresistible urges that drive us to survive and succeed. Sometimes you feel can’t miss and you don’t. Sometimes you fail.
Coach Ben Thompson’s voice drives the plot, but the pages turn because of the quiet moments of tension that drive Roberge’s players. One by one, they get under the reader’s skin. Creepy, sexy and weird, Bone, Money and Hedda are in turns dignified and defiant as they play hard and discover their strengths.
Roberge has a knack for twisting the normal into the perverse and sad, as with a cow hitting the outside wall of Ben Thompson’s building making “a tortured and lonely sound.” He also knows joy, which comes through in searing moments of hope on the basketball court, like a dance in the sunlight: “It’s just me and the ball and the rim and the sun might burn out and the world might stop turning before I miss again.”
~ DRIVE, hardcover now available, softcover from Hollyridge Press this fall