Drive by Saviours by Chris Benjamin

In my introductory post, I included a list of books I planned on reading in 2011. Chris Benjamin’s Drive by Saviours was on that list. To date, I have had more visits to this site as a result of searches for this novel than any other topic other than Barney’s Version. There were fewer people searching for Jane Eyre and Water for Elephants. I’d call that impressive.

As our book club choice for May, Drive By Saviours inspired the longest and arguably most interesting discussion we have had in a long time. I’ve been a member of the same book club for years… eight or nine I think. We’re pretty laid back. We discuss the book for an hour or so, drink wine, and conversation fades into discussion of work or children or annoying things our husbands did.

Wednesday night we got of course a few times, but kept coming back to the book.

There’s a lot to discuss about Drive By Saviours. I’ve read a few books lately where it seems nothing really happens (and that can be OK) but with this one SO MUCH happens. Honestly, one member who came for discussion despite not reading the book* kept stopping us for clarification. “Is this all in one book? How is that even possible? Let me see that, the writing must be TINY.”

Drive By Saviours is about two men, Mark, a social worker in Toronto, and Bumi, and illegal immigrant from Indonesia, working off his debt in a Toronto restaurant. Mark’s life is not living up to his expectations. Mark feels he ought to have saved the world at least twice now, and that his super-hot girlfriend should be nicer to him (sarcastic, yes, but Mark is a character who is supposed to annoy you so I feel justified). Bumi escaped a life sentence in Indonesia for crimes he did not commit, but left his family behind, and is dealing with loneliness and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Mark and Bumi meet on a TTC bus, and develop an unlikely friendship. Mark decided fixing Bumi’s life will finally make him happy – but of course nothing is that simple or easy.

Along the way Mark reconciles with his estranged sister, proposes to and breaks up with his girlfriend, develops a crush on a lesbian, and tries to save Mexican migrant farm workers. We also learn of Bumi’s childhood: inventing new technologies for fishing, his father’s alcoholism, being torn away from his parents and sent to residential school, reading banned literature, getting a friend killed, and eventually being charged with murder.

No wonder Meghan thought we were talking about three or four different books.

You see parallels between Bumi’s young life in Indonesia and Mark’s unhappiness now in Toronto. Bumi was an intellectual reading communist and western literature, discussing change and revolution at a café, yet not doing anything to make it happen. Mark bemoans his inability to help people, yet is so self-absorbed he ignores the few clients he has left. He complains about the administration and paperwork, and then talks himself into a promotion to assistant manager. You will want to shake the arrogance out of both of them. Of course, Bumi’s life does that for you. Eventually, it seems Mark might have woken up to this as well.

Opinion was spilt on the merits of the book, but came down on the positive side. Two of us (myself included) thought it was fantastic. Others enjoyed it, but found the complex plot overwhelming. Another thought it was altogether too political and trying to teach too many lessons at once. “It’s a Fibre One book. 42% of your recommended daily intake of social justice!”

Admittedly, when the migrant worker issue was introduced I briefly thought the same, but it came back to the main story before my opinion was clouded too much.

Drive by Saviours was beautifully written, and on more than one occasion I stopped to reread a passage that was particularly striking or touching. I think Benjamin is trying to teach us something, or many things, but they are things we ought to know, and he does so through a wonderful story.

Highly recommended.

Published: Roseway

Paperback ISBN: 9781552663691

Publication Date: Sep 2010

Pages: 346

 * We are very laid back. Didn’t read the book? No problem. Come. But bring wine, and expect spoilers.


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