The Drift

The Drift

4.2 4
by John Ridley

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Ballantine Books Edition
Product dimensions:
5.61(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.


The screams were most likely courtesy of a romantic dick to his ass. Maybe the product of an old-fashioned shank to his ribs.


Not my problem.

Yuppie Scum's in the wrong place, Yuppie Scum gets what it deserves. I was just trying to make Iowa.


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 weresmarter 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.


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."


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.


No money. He wasn't lying.


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.

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The Drift 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is truly terrific. This is the first Rdiley novel I have read and it will not be the last. Charlie is such a great character...a complete bad arse. This book is not pretty but its fun and captivating throughout. I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I write coverage for a living, meaning that I get hundreds of manuscripts each year to evaluate for the world's greatest screen stars like Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Samuel L. Jackson, etc. In other words, I'm asked to give my opinion regarding scripts and books being worthy of being made into screen projects for these stars. Of all the work I was given last year (2002), there was nothing as amazing as this read. I was shocked and filled with admiration for the beautifully-flawed protagonist named Brain Nigger Charlie, the wonderfully-real, fully-realized anti-hero of this book. All supporting characters in the novel are greatly fleshed out, and their arcs are deepy disturbing and powerful. This is a haunting story and a terrific character study, in ways that might be upsetting to some readers, but the exploration is indellible in terms of great, modern journeys in literature. Ride the rails with Ridley and be thankful that it's from afar.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is a rich American tradition of riding the rails. Even I, as a child, had adventurous dreams of running away on a railway and experiencing moonlit campfires and starry-night talks with hobos. John Ridley¿s The Drift illustrates the flip of the coin and the underbelly of drugs and terror on the turf of today¿s freight train riding hobos. Charles Harmon, an upper-middle class Black tax lawyer, resides in Sunny California. Charles is a possessor of the American dream replete with a BMW in the driveway, a palatial suburban home, a gardener, Cayman Island vacations, and a beautiful wife with a new-born baby harboring a crystal blue, 3rd eye in his cheek ¿ disturbing images that his slowly deteriorating, demented mind envisions. He abandons all of the accouterments of the American dream for the beckoning call of The Drift¿the magnetic pull of The Drift¿the sensation of The Drift, the gentle lull and roll of the trains on the tracks. The protagonist, Charles Harmon, descends into an underworld of train-hopping hobos with tags such as Frypan Jack and Slow Motion Shorty. Charles discovers, ¿Freedom. Freedom is what the rails are for¿. Charles dies and experiences a rebirth as Brain Nigger Charlie and is indoctrinated into the world of steel corridors learning to `catch-out¿ and ride the rails. Old and tired Chocolate Walt becomes the mentor to Brain Nigger Charlie and his newly acquired friends ¿ the fierce and loyal George Plimpton and his potent and clinging lady friends, Lady K and Lady E. The novel¿s plot heightens as Chocolate Walt engages Brain Nigger Charlie to ride the High Line in search of his wayward, runaway niece Corina Leslie. The High Line is inhabited and controlled by the Pacific Northwest FTRA ¿ Freight Train Riders of America or the original ¿F*$^ the Reagan Administration¿ ¿ a vicious gang of psychopathic, racist, drug-trafficking. train-hopping hobos that have commandeered the freight train of America leaving a trail of corpses in its wake. Brain Nigger Charlie attempts to redeem himself by valiantly searching for his friend¿s niece, Corina Leslie. As his search begins, amid many hits and misses, this novel takes you on a roller coaster ride with multiple bends, unexpected twists, and curves. As you succulently savor each page, the suspense is earth shaking, glass breaking, and unsettling¿ a wonderful and incredible tour de force of images with exact and precise descriptive images. You are sure to begin a train ride on the Freight Trains of American into Pure Terror - in the capable hands of John Ridley. Reviewed by LottaHoney