Review by Frank Plowright
Joff Winterhart has already proved himself the master of the observationally mundane, and takes that a step further with Driving Short Distances. He follows Sam, who’s hoping his problems are in his past when offered a position with a distant family member, Keith Nutt. Sam has artistic inclinations, and a placid and patient personality, which is of great use when dealing with Keith, who fills his hours and knows a lot of people, but is hardly forthcoming about what his business is, despite wanting an apprentice. Keith drives to various offices around the city, never staying long, rarely forthcoming about his purpose, Sam not permitted beyond reception areas. Gradually Keith becomes a subject for study, not only for Sam, but for anyone reading, and something strange happens relatively rapidly, Winterhart somehow making fascinating someone who seemingly couldn’t be more ordinary, if extremely particular. Truths are imparted sparingly, often undermining the picture Winterhart has deliberately cultivated.
There’s a degree of familiarity to some of Winterhart’s cast. Bakery employee Hazel-Claire visually resembles a caricature of British comedian Miranda Hart, while lanky Sam could be a version of World Music expert Andy Kershaw. Keith is any number of salesmen who’ve stuck to their job for decades, now portly and a relic from the past, attempting to maintain a pretence of relevance when on some level aware that their world has passed on. Visually Keith is only distinguishable from his type by small elements, like his exceptionally hairy nostrils, and one of the funnier passages has Sam considering all the people and things Keith resembles, ranging from sausages in a butcher’s window to an MTV rapper. Winterhart also includes some nice visual juxtapositions complementing the dialogue. It’s a significant artistic progress from his previous Days of the Bagnold Summer, where the observational writing outstripped the art.
Keith’s strangely paternal stream of useless advice is wonderfully mundane, as are his self-bolstering stories, and through Sam’s eyes we gradually come to understand Keith, absorbing the bits of himself he doesn’t want to give away, but can’t avoid secreting. Winterhart also ensures we come to understand many of Keith’s friends, important in building the complete picture of Keith. It’s a masterful and sometimes funny, if ultimately melancholy study seeing Keith stripped down and revealed as considered very differently from the person he tries to project.
Days of the Bagnold Summer was exceptionally well received, and ultimately filmed, but Driving Short Distances builds on the promise. It’s a compelling stream of small observational moments, almost all having some meaning and perhaps the message is that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’. If preferred, there’s an American hardcover edition from Gallery 13 combining both books, which does mean this edition is unavailable in North America.