George Plimpton. Those two words, that pretentious name-drop, begin John Ridley’s The Drift. “George Plimpton was up, angry. Doing work. George was a badass. George was a head smasher.” George, of course, is nothing like his Paris Review namesake, and initially this photo negative seems too coy by half: a bad mofo named after such a patrician soul, gee. Quickly we find out that George Plimpton isn’t some irony-laced character but the handle that hobo-narrator Brain Nigger Charlie has given his stealthy weapon. It’s George Plimpton’s literal, not literary, force that persuades.
The down-and-out duo of Brain Nigger Charlie and his ace boon walking stick mark Ridley’s return to the underbelly proclivities and hard-bitten style he’s wielded in such novels as Everybody Smokes in Hell (1999) and Stray Dogs (1997). Nowhere in The Drift is there the winking fondness at the core of Undercover Brother (the underappreciated movie Ridley wrote and executive produced). And nowhere in Brain Nigger Charlie’s account of his life is there the whiff of self-pity that clings to A Conversation With the Mann (also published in 2002), a tale told by a black comedian whose lifelong goal had been to do a routine on The Ed Sullivan Show. After a summer of these intriguing detours, Ridley’s back to flexing his hard-boiled sensibility.
Before there was Brain Nigger Charlie, there was Charles Harmon, a black, middle-class tax lawyer living in Los Angeles with his “equally light-skinned, surpassingly upper-upper-middle-class [wife] Beverly.” A confluence of events ushers Charles over the threshold to where the lucid but not entirely sane Brain Nigger Charlie awaits. Harmon mismanages the misery his upwardly mobile aspirations bring, and falters. Then comes the promise, the gift, the absolute threat of a baby. Charlie recounts the demise of this former self with little tenderness—contempt is more like it. Not that imprecise version called racial self-hatred, but a personal, chilled disgust. “The very night Charles was told of his wife’s pregnancy he had a dream of the unborn child. He dreamed it was a happy, healthy caramel-colored kid. With a third eye in its cheek.” This eye “wasn’t deformed. It was a nice, normal third eye. But it was blue. . . . A baby with a cheek eye.” A black baby with a blue cheek eye. The dream visits him each night. So Charles adds ketamine and Ecstasy to his repertoire of bad coping mechanisms. Stay awake, don’t drift off, keep that three-eyed vision at bay. Pretty quick, Harmon—dumped by his firm and by his wife—is history. “Charles,” says his present incarnation, “was, in an incredibly short amount of time relative to the years of building himself up, penniless. . . . He learned something then: for those without money, money is nearly impossible to come by.” It is this broke and broken being that hits the rails.
The nation’s rail yards are an inhospitable and pungent place to insert the tale of a quest—a knights-of-the-roundhouse journey, so to speak. But that is exactly what Ridley does. At the annual National Hobo Convention (a real gathering that has been taking place in Britt, Iowa, since 1900), Brain Nigger Charlie runs into Chocolate Walt. Walt once saved Brain Nigger Charlie by teaching him how to hop a freight properly and by introducing him to the companionship of George Plimpton. After Chocolate Walt is crowned King of the Hobos, he asks a favor of Brain Nigger Charlie: Find his niece, Corina. The old hobo managed to impress upon his young kin the appeal of his impossible life. “After all the stories you’ve distributed to me over the years, after reading so many picture books of so many beautiful destinations,” she wrote her uncle, “I’m finally catching out and riding the rails.”
Ridley, like Brain Nigger Charlie, loves libraries. The gangs that prowl the rail yards and trains in The Drift are the real deal. The white supremacist FTRA, Freight Train Riders of America, and the NLR, the Nazi Low Riders, inspire maximum insecurity. This is a world in which the prison-industrial complex has been eviscerated and its innards strewn along the High Line, the central and southern routes. Here vulnerability gets the same brutal treatment it would at Oz. Uppity Nigger Charlie is raped a number of times before George Plimpton helps him become Brain Nigger Charlie. Midway through his journey, Brain Nigger Charlie makes the acquaintance of a white-boy naïf. He tags him Stupid Bitch Dumbass. It’s a name that underscores just how overdetermined the yang of this subculture is.
Should it be a surprise, then, that the female characters typical of noir-inflected fiction would transmogrify? In The Drift, femmes fatales become lethal butches who can kick ass as mercilessly as their skinhead, drug-slinging, sociopath brethren: “The other guy wasn’t a guy. The guy was a chick and she was some whole other thing,” Brain Nigger Charlie says of one such gal. “But different from the Shemale I’d tussled with in Williston, she didn’t come off at all dykish. She was just about pretty. . . . Except that she looked like she’d be plenty happy to carve me from my flesh and fuck what remained of me, she was a real hottie.” As for Corina, entangled with a very lethal meth dealer: Even she is more emotionally armored than we, or Brain Nigger Charlie, suspect.
In the end, Corina remains a cipher, despite the missives Brain Nigger Charlie has to go on. “It’s easy not to trust when a woman’s involved,” a railway investigator tells Charlie: old-school words from an old-style P.I. That The Drift‘s unholy grail turns out to be of less import than the journey to find it is not nothing new. Yet Ridley gives that idea the once-over with startling vigor and a brutal, callused poetry. With The Drift, Ridley unfetters a low-grade fury.