JULY 6, 2020
YAIR ASSULIN’S The Drive, an award-winning Israeli novel first published in Hebrew in 2011, has just been released in the United States by New Vessel Press, in a translation by Jessica Cohen. It is a slim book that speaks volumes about the current state of Israel.
The Drive represents a new landmark in Israeli fiction. Israel has always had a strong national literature with many respected novelists, from S. Y. Agnon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966, to such notable names as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, Batya Gur, Aharon Appelfeld, and David Grossman (whose Man Booker International Prize–winning novel A Horse Walks into a Bar  was also translated into English by Cohen). Most recently, Etgar Keret has gained worldwide acclaim for his absurdist, comic, and fantastic short stories.
The Drive is Israel’s own The Catcher in the Rye, its narrator — like Holden Caulfield — a too-sensitive young man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Like Holden, he has a nose for phoniness and can see through the false bravado and cruelty of Israel’s military infrastructure. And, like Salinger’s novel, The Drive reveals the fault lines in a national narrative.
The story, narrated in the first person, chronicles the journey of a recent army recruit and his father to visit the Israeli army’s Mental Health Officer (MHO). The boy has been on sick leave, and the visit will decide his fate as a soldier. During the drive, the narrator recounts some of the experiences leading up to this moment — his on-and-off relationship with his girlfriend, his enlistment, his military service, his observant faith, his parents’ attempts to help him and their failure to understand, and his treatment by his fellow soldiers. The writing is plain and direct, its power lying in the searing nakedness of the narrator’s description of his world and his psychic pain. Although this is a short novel (only around 130 pages), it is so loaded with emotion and stress that sometimes, after reading a few short chapters, I needed to take a break. This is not a book you will want to race through.
The Drive is not an antiwar novel, or even an anti-military narrative, or anti-Israel, anti-secularist, or anti-religious either. Rather, it is a novel about an individual who does not conform to prevailing assumptions about the role of the military in Israeli life and society. This example gives some flavor of the Israeli Holden:
I put a Leonard Cohen CD on and listened quietly to the first song. I remembered a conversation I had with Ayala about a month before, when I was trying to decide whether or not to see the MHO. I told her I was afraid of the asinine way people looked at anyone who’d been to the MHO, as if they were crazy or a menace to society, or at best a despicable shirker who refused to give back to the country that had raised him and protected him and cared for him. Then I told her that in our religious community, where everyone knew everything about one another, the whole business of stigmatizing people who get mental health exemptions was especially bad, and that she couldn’t do anything about it because that was the society I’d been born into, and the fact that I wanted to live a religious lifestyle forced me to stay in contact with it to some degree, and to tolerate its negative aspects.
As the narrator reveals the cruelty and ignorance of his commanders and fellow soldiers, The Drive exposes the pervasive influence of the Israeli armed forces in a nation where the draft is mandatory, seen as a collective rite of passage, and where military performance portends success in life — where, indeed, the people you serve with can become the ladder for your success. It is also the story of a person who is religiously observant and for whom that observance matters deeply because it makes him who he is. That deep individualism chafes against the strictures of the Israeli military, not to mention secular society itself. As the narrator angrily observes:
There are no truth and lies in the army. Truth is what the commander tells you, even though a moment before he said the exact opposite, and love is only what you feel for someone who is useful to you and only as long as he’s useful to you. After that you can, and perhaps should, shit all over him. There’s no right or wrong either. There’s only military discipline — that clean, sterile, “logical” title that projects such calm, such truth. So stuck in our bloodstream, in our mode of thinking.
Assulin’s novel created a stir upon its publication in Israel because, although Israeli writers have long criticized the military for its incursions into Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, no Israeli writer had spoken out about the difficulty of performing mandatory service even in peacetime and of its impact on fragile 18-year-olds. Even more than The Catcher in the Rye, The Drive is the story of a person in the grip of a psychological and emotional crisis — in a society not predisposed to recognize, acknowledge, understand, or accommodate him.
Although many writers have described the experience of depression, few have done so as compellingly as Assulin does in The Drive. The author gives a vivid description of the intense psychic pain his narrator is suffering, a pain so great that he considers throwing himself in front of a car, so real that he bangs his head against a wall 50 times in order to blunt its force. And we also learn the difficulty that the narrator’s father has in understanding his son’s pain.
“But I can’t understand it,” he [the father] said when I tried once again to explain what I was going through.
“What can’t you understand?” I screamed. “What can’t you understand? It’s a fact. I want to die, I want to die now, today. If you hadn’t come I’d be dead. I’d be dead! Can you understand that?”
As you read, you wonder how long Assulin can sustain this monologue. What will happen when they arrive at the MHO? The answer is quite surprising, and is part of the pleasure of reading The Drive. As his father waits in the car, the narrator stands alone, unsure, his life at a crossroads.
I kept mulling over these ideas, and I even thought about convenient ways of dying, like taking pills or jumping off a tower, options that didn’t involve too much pain, until suddenly; and I write “suddenly” because no matter how much I try to reconstruct the moment and understand how it happened, I cannot, it was as though the lust to live — such a big phrase for such a banal thing — took over and I stood up and walked into the building. There was nothing heroic or brave about that walk. It was heavy, and my eyes — or so I felt — were half-shut.
Without giving away what happens next, I will simply say that Assulin delivers powerfully on the novel’s epigraph by Roland Barthes: “It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect.” That is an insight I think Salinger himself would have understood.