Washington Driver Guide
by Washington State

Free from the DMV.

by J. G. Ballard

(Picador USA) $13

"[He] was obsessed by many wounds and impacts--by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions."

--J. G. Ballard, Crash

Anonymity is the greatest privilege a book can have. Unburdened by subjectivity, it's free to bully readers into setting aside their own defenses, creating an honest dialogue. Reading The Story of O, or the Bible, it's harder to shrug off the moments that create discomfort and self-reflection. You're not sparring with another person, you're staring in a mirror, however small or distorting. The silver lining is, if we can leave our comfort zone, authorial anonymity allows us to prospect alone in the intellectual mines. Whatever riches we find, we get to keep.

Which brings us to that most overlooked of anonymous texts, the Washington Driver Guide. This is because what looks like a sober, bland explanation of the rules of the road instead ranks among the finest explications of American bloodlust, a trip into the terrain where our dreams of self-reliance and community converge in that prurient asphalt opera called the interstate highway system. Viewed through this narrative prism, the poker-faced Guide reads like a thriller, a generic rendition of the deathrace that's one of the defining enzymes in our social DNA.

The Guide is one act of warning. The protagonist is the small "you," refashioned as a stick figure. The arc of the story is a steady but barely discernible climb upward, like scaling a low, grassy hill on a cloudy day. And at the top of that hill, on the other side, is a Cadillac Ranch of scrap metal, the result of those who did not heed the Guide's advices.

Fred Stephens, the director of licensing, starts the book off with an optimistic reminder that "together we can make Washington highways safe." But the Guide doesn't read like a talisman of safety. Because it's about all the things you can't do, there is an underlying mistrust in the reader, and this reminder is the last optimistic moment in the book. Everything else is predicated on the assumption of disaster.

Thematically, what the Guide explores is our behind-the-wheel conflict: whether to remember that a good driver is a calm driver or to submit to complete road rage. Sections named "The Driver License" and "Before You Drive" find that queasy balance in which we preside, detailing in ordered prose the rules and regulations of license procurement and insurance. Like the driver at the entrance to a particularly nasty freeway on-ramp, these sections want to accommodate virtue and prudence. But as anyone who's ever tried to merge onto I-5 during rush hour can attest, good intentions get severely tested in a couple of breaths.

As we start cruising into the ominously titled "Safe Driving Tips," the lobotomized tone and utter lack of emotion starts to feel like the worst sort of déjà vu, embodying our fraying smile as we navigate through the miasma of 65-mile-per-hour incompetence. "Safe Driving Tips my ass," you think, and start to look for ways to get around that fishtailing moron in the Toyota in front of you. And as we switch into fifth, shooting through the kaleidoscope of warnings called "Be in Shape to Drive," we can feel that familiar twitch--that, while picking up speed and leaning on the horn because the other drivers just don't know what they're doing, we are headed toward the inevitable, toward the heart of the proposition in this Darwinian testimony, the climax of the book, the "Emergencies" section.

Here, while trying to get around a number of slow-going old ladies and taking what's ours, we veer into the passing lane, not seeing the Porsche in our blind spot, colliding with it, causing a chain reaction of other accidents that culminates in demolition, smoke, and fire.

By this point, the Guide's tone of insistent, sunny fear has turned into an insanity in monotone, an analogy for the state of shock we experience from the consequences of the activity we've undertaken. This is where the Guide's anonymity becomes so damning. There is no way we can ascribe distance to the narrative that has so well described this dark adventure that we enjoyed. There is only us, by the side of the emotional road, crawling from the wreckage, waiting for the tow truck and the ambulances, while that little off-white book pulses quietly in all our glove compartments.

by Michael Shilling