Driving Short Distances is the second book by Bristol based writer, illustrator, animator and musician Joff Winterhart. His first book was sublimely poignant and funny “Days of the Bagnold Summer” released in 2012 to great acclaim and garnered a nomination for the prestigious Costa Best Novel Award that year. Now, this was quite a thing, the first time that a graphic novel was considered for the award. Such was the impact of this brilliant book, it is set to be made into a feature film in 2018.
Wonderful as all this is, it could have caused a problem for Joff. We all know about authors, bands and film makers who spend years crafting their first release and then fail to deal with the pressure that any subsequent success may bring them. Any number of follow up pieces have been disappointing, leading to stalled careers, sometimes evening bringing down the curtain on a previously exciting talent.
What then to make of this follow up? Well the thrilling news, is that this new venture from Joff is a good, maybe even better than his debut. This is quite an achievement.
Once again Joff uses the graphic novel form to shine a light on characters that are neither glamorous or exciting. This though, is the great strength of the piece, we get to know the small details that make 27-year-old Sam and middle aged Keith, such engaging company. Although Sam would probably be shocked at such a description of himself.
It’s not giving too much away to say that both are a little lost. Sam struggling to take the journey from youth to adulthood is isolated and introvert, just looking for some time and breathing space to start his life again. Keith on the other hand has a large number of contacts and stories about his interactions in their company. He lives his life to a steadfast plan, routine and respect are vitally important to Keith. It’s clear that likes to be valued in the small-town community, that his mysterious business is part of.
Circumstances throw Sam and Keith into an unlikely partnership. They drive around the industrial units of their featureless town, Keith looking to pass on mystifying pearls of wisdom to the gloriously disinterested Sam.
The relationship between the two of them builds gradually, as we are introduced to a beguiling array of small town characters. The flirty ladies in the bakers, the great and good of the local haulage companies, the doyens of the charity shops. All of these are tenderly drawn into the story, their flaws and charms equally celebrated.
As with his previous book, there is wonderful joy to be taken from the small things in life. Nothing earth shattering or desperately exciting happens but the people do gently evolve and we gain a deeper understanding of the motivations and needs of Sam and Keith and their contrasting versions of masculinity. Their respective isolation from the wider world, touches on the sadness that can threaten to overtake them from time to time.
This all beautifully handled by Joff, it’s a funny and tender look at the life of those that struggle to fit into the world of the lifestyle magazines. It provides a recognition that sometimes people just need some time and space, to find a life that is right for them. It’s hard to imagine that any other book, could so beautifully capture the everyday story of seemingly humdrum folk and turn it into such a charming and life affirming story. Driving Short Distances is a resounding triumph from first to last.