Cover image for The drift
The drift
Ridley, John, 1965-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Physical Description:
269 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Library

On Order



He was Charles Harmon, a black man "living white" and living well--beautiful wife, German car, big house--in an upper-upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. He is Brain Nigger Charlie, a train tramp eking out a ragged existence on the railroads, leaning on drugs to keep him from thinking about everything he had, everything his creeping dementia has forced him to run from. Charlie's been asked a desperate favor: find the seventeen-year-old niece of the man who taught him how to survive the rails--a girl lost somewhere on the High Line, the "corridors of racist hate" along the tracks of the Pacific Northwest. Charlie has little hope of finding her alive, but the request is an obligation he can't refuse. The search is a twisted trail that leads from Iowa to Washington State, mixing lies and deceit, hate and hopelessness, and brutal, stubbornly unsolved murders. All of which Charlie is prepared to meet in kind. What he isn't prepared for is a path that will eventually lead him back to what he thought no longer existed--his own humanity--though the toll may turn out to be his life. At once stunningly visceral and psychologically complex, furiously paced and deeply empathic, The Drift is John Ridley's most ambitious, most galvanizing novel yet. From the Hardcover edition.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Brain Nigger Charlie wasn't always a railroad tramp. In his previous life, he was Charles Harmon, a tax attorney who fretted over tiny dents in his BMW. But fear of mortgaging his life to fatherhood drove him first to drinking, then to drugs, then to the street, and, finally, to the rails. Hardened by trials of fire, he thrives in his new circumstances, finding a tortured kind of freedom and power through the violence he inflicts with his cudgel, or "goonie stick," which he calls "George Plimpton." When Chocolate Walt, the man who taught Charlie to survive in the hobo jungles, asks him to find his niece, Brain Nigger (he insists that people address him by his tag) must search the racist hotbeds of the Northwest. The prolific Ridley (A Conversation with the Mann [BKL My 1 02]), who often puts black protagonists where we're not used to seeing them, has created a fascinating and fully modern noir with a complex, unlikely investigator. Addicted to drugs, possibly going crazy--he hears "George Plimpton" talking to him--Brain Nigger is still resourceful and proud of his intellect yet subject to overreaching the mark. Funny, sad, and pulsing with menace, the book entertains while simultaneously exploring race, materialism, and the very real subcultures that exist below the radar of mainstream America. --Keir Graff

Publisher's Weekly Review

Ridley (Stray Dogs) leads readers into the lurid, violent world of modern-day hobos and rail riders in this taut, riveting murder mystery. Charles Hanson left his middle-class L.A. life to become Brain Nigger Charlie, a free-spirited hobo who knows every trick in the book when it comes to surviving in the brutal world of rail riding. But even Charlie is challenged when his friend's niece Corina drops out of high school to ride the rails, only to find herself caught in a world of drug smuggling, gangs and violent thugs. Charlie's quest to find her starts with an encounter with Kessler, a neo-Nazi gang lord who has enslaved Corina as a drug mule. She manages to escape, and as Charlie races Kessler to find her, he picks up more information on her whereabouts from a sympathetic cop named Haxton Boole, who intervenes on Charlie's behalf when he is picked up and tortured by an FBI agent after a battle with Kessler's men. Charlie soon learns that the girl has hooked up with a Hispanic serial killer. After a brief trip to L.A. to revisit his old life (in the course of which he discovers that his wife has taken off), he heads to the Pacific Northwest for a deadly showdown. Ridley's terse, electric prose captures the subculture of modern-day rail riders, and the suspense level remains high throughout. (Sept.) Forecast: This could be a breakout book-supported by national advertising and a five-city author tour-for Ridley, a regular commentator on NPR, who has also written and/or produced such successful films as Undercover Brother and Three Kings. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Charles Harmon was living the American dream great job, wonderful wife, nice house in the suburbs until his psychosis ruined everything. Now he has been transformed into Brain Nigger Charlie, a tramp riding the rails and digging through trash to find his next meal. When a fellow tramp asks Charlie to help him locate his teenaged niece, who has herself begun riding the rails, Charlie decides to honor his friend's plea. His efforts quickly draw attention not only from the law but also from less savory characters, including a white supremacist organization using the trains to run drugs. At the same time, there's a serial murderer traveling the rails, endangering Charlie even further. Ridley's writing resonates with truth and humor, and to his credit he doesn't romanticize the life of the tramp, depicting instead its ugly reality. Charlie's illness and quick descent into his current state are also handled with blunt honesty. Another excellent effort from the talented author of Stray Dogs and Love Is a Racket, this belongs in public libraries. Craig Shufelt, Lane P.L., Fairfield, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



George Plimpton was up, angry. Doing work. George was a badass. George was a head smasher. And though some tried, George Plimpton was not to be trifled with. George's belligerence was necessitated, this time, by a weepy-bitchy scream in the night, shrill enough to be heard above the steel wheels rolling across the joins of the rails and the diesel-electric GE Unit some fifteen cars up hauling us eastward across the Ameri- can Middle West. The scream was weepy-bitchy shrill enough you'd almost think it was a woman doing the "please, oh God"-ing. Almost. Not quite. Not quite weepy-bitchy shrill enough for that. It carried just enough bass to be the cries of what passed for a man; the cries of Yuppie Scum. Some day-trading, dot-com-ing bastard who was bored with his Benz and instant millions and figured-for whatever reason logical only to Young, Upwardly Mobile Scurf-that hopping Old Dirty Face, riding the rails, would be a romantic, nostalgic way to see America: swapping harmonica songs and open fire-cooked canned beans with some white bearded hobo who regaled with recountings of endless travel over wide-open spaces. Yeah. The screams were most likely courtesy of a romantic dick to his ass. Maybe the product of an old-fashioned shank to his ribs. Fine. Not my problem. Yuppie Scum's in the wrong place, Yuppie Scum gets what it deserves. I was just trying to make Iowa. Except All that weepy-bitchy screaming . . . it's just got a way of edging you up. Others, the other tramps and 'boes in the car-catch-outs to Iowa were always heavy the second weekend in August-kept to themselves. Others were smarter than me. I made for the commotion. A full moon cutting through slits in the metal of the box- car helped me read the situation. Fetaled up in a corner of the car was a floppy blond-haired white guy still "oh, Jesus. Oh God, please, God don't"-ing. He was sporting Dockers-actual honest-to-Christ Dockers-and a shirt that had previously been another color but was now blood-reddish from the red blood that flowed from cuts and slashes, defensive wounds, decorating his arms and upper body. Standing over him were a couple of 'boes. Black bandannas on their necks. Could still smell the piss. Fuck. Not 'boes. Freight Train Riders of America. FTRA. Meth-snorting peckerwood gangers. One was demonstrating a blade, the other the smile of a patron enjoying a show. To the both of them: "Knock that shit off." Real-life violence is not like movie violence. Movie violence is most times preceded by lots of snappy dialogue from $20 million action star #14 concerning how he's going to do some nasty things to the stuntman who's paid union wages to go down on cue. Real-life violence is mostly unescorted by tough-guy remarks about driving somebody's nose bone up into their brain. In real life, violence is just very suddenly with you. Suddenly the FTRA with the blade was slashing for me. And it was then that George Plimpton got up, angry. Did work. George greeted the FTRA where his arm and hand joined. The wrist, technically speaking. George greeted the FTRA at the wrist, and the FTRA's wrist replied with a squeal and a deafening snap and a fountain of blood from where flesh got torn open by breaking bone. George swung around, catching FTRA in the face, across his cheek. What teeth weren't smashed from his mouth were driven through the skin of his jaw. FTRA One was done for the day. FTRA Two, who'd come to the party without shank or sharp object or goonie stick, gave me and George some fearful looking- over. I said to him: "Got money?" The FTRA's head-poked like he'd tried to block buckshot with it. Brittle skin peppered with a beard that wouldn't grow right-shook his head no. "Got food stamps?" The head with its shitty excuse for a face gave me "no" again. My eyes shifted away from the FTRA. In a flinchy style he looked to where I was looking: the open door of the boxcar. Not a word spoken, but my meaning was clear. FTRA number two started in with some begging. "Please. . ." One pitiful word, but at least he didn't sound the bitch Dockers Boy did. Didn't matter. "Get out." "Plea-" George raised up. That was it for FTRA Two. He'd seen George Plimpton doing work. George Plimpton was not to be trifled with. Using what was left of his free will, FTRA Two sailed himself into the dark that waited just beyond the door. The boxcar now de-FTRA'd, my attention was pulled by the sick whimpers of the yuppie scum. "Th-thank you." Those goddamn Dockers. And I'm pretty sure his shirt was Banana Republic. "Got money?" I wanted to know. On the floor of the boxcar, Yuppie Scum was just a little ball of confusion. ". . . Wha . . . ?" "Got money?" ". . . No . . ." "Got food stamps?" "No, I don't." He was lying. Not about the food stamps. Yuppie Scum didn't know a WIC coupon from a welfare check. But money . . . Those FTRA fuckers hadn't had time to roll him properly. They hadn't had time to get to his wallet; his cash or his traveler's checks. Yeah. Believe it. Goddamn Yuppie Scum caught out with traveler's checks. And this one had to go and pretend like . . . I save his less-than-useless pink hide, and he doesn't have the decency to compensate me? I grabbed at Yuppie Scum, grabbed his wallet, pulled it free, taking a swath of Dockers with it. Gripping his bloody-moist BR shirt, I hauled him for the boxcar door. Knowing what was coming, he went spastic-flailing, clawing at me. All that gift-wrapped in more of his girlie yells. He'd made his choice. He'd picked lying over truth-telling. Couldn't he just take what was coming? George helped him with that. George knocked him limp. Out the door with Yuppie Scum. Into the night, into the howling air that swept past the rushing train. If not for the noise of the Unit, the constant chatter of the couplings, it would have been quiet enough in the city-free nothingland west of Iowa to hear the coo of tall weeds petted by the night breeze, the hum of crickets and power lines as they sang at each other. It would have been quiet enough to hear if Yuppie Scum bitch-screamed as he flew groundward, if his neck cracked when he hit terra firma from a train doing sixty-plus, or if he just smacked earth, picked himself up, and hollered "To hell with you, you nigger tramp!" as he dusted his Dockers off. Not knowing which was true, I imagined my reality of favor. I imagined Yuppie Scum's neck to be shattered beyond repair. Not killing him. Leaving him a quad for life. And I was happy for it. Yuppie Scum reproduced at a rate just slightly below fungus in a dark cellar. He would be replaced. He would not be missed. I know. I had been Yuppie Scum. I had been replaced in the world. No one missed me. With George I returned to my corner of the boxcar, the other tramps and 'boes not even daring to look our way. I went through Yuppie Scum's wallet. Shit. No money. He wasn't lying. Anyway. I was jangled and I needed some of Lady K to set me straight. Needed her, just wanted her. Didn't matter. I had some of her. Calmed down, George and I curled up together. I did not sleep. As always, I was scared to death of what waited for me just the other side of being awake. Excerpted from The Drift by John Ridley All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.