Travis Bickle, meet Toni Morrison, in a socially probing, fiercely fun debut novel
On the Shelf
Your Driver Is Waiting
By Priya Guns
Doubleday: 320 pages, $26
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Four nights after Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Skylight Books, the beloved indie shop, hosted a community wake. Weeping, raging authors read hastily scribbled poems and essays. Audience members choked out questions, including this one from an ashen-faced young man: “Can we still write novels?”
“We have to!” thundered a local writer, quoting Toni Morrison: “‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ Not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!’”
Along with such contemporary activist-authors as Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Tommy Orange, Alice Walker, Colson Whitehead and many others, Morrison was known for novels that refused to draw a line between art for art’s sake and art that promotes social justice. The latest to follow her example is author Priya Guns. With the publication of her piercingly funny, scathingly censorious debut, “Your Driver Is Waiting,” Guns places herself squarely (or should I say, hiply) in the Morrison canon.
Guns’ exposé of young, burning underclass America is personified by Damani Krishanthan, a 30-year-old queer, socialist, basement-dwelling Sri Lankan immigrant who drives for a company called RideShare in an unnamed metropolis. Damani’s father recently died — she blames the fast-food chain that overworked and underpaid him — and her invalid mother is physically, financially and emotionally dependent on her broke-ass daughter. When we meet Damani, she’s taking a mandated hour off the app — “(Clause 7, no more than twelve consecutive hours of driving)” — while taking endless calls from her demanding Ma.
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“I wish I could say I started the day with the four highly effective habits of the wealthy,” Damani tells us by way of introduction. “Only, I get home at two or three some mornings, struggle to sleep most nights, and am up again at seven.”
Nor do the highly effective wealthy hang out at squats in abandoned warehouses like the one “repurposed” by Damani’s crew as “our own gated community.” Within Doo Wop’s utopian campus, protected by wild blackberry bushes and a human-based security system, undocumented workers eat free meals, unhoused folks sleep in provided tents, and bicycles are free for the borrowing and clothing for the taking, including Damani’s “treasured army surplus jacket that someone else had culture-jammed by sewing patches over flags and brands.” Doo Wop also hosts activist meetings of gig workers like Damani, organizing against the system that exploits them.
From the book’s opening pages, our protagonist’s life of not-so-quiet desperation is driven home by her creator’s powerful prose. Staring into her car’s rear-view mirror, Damani reflects, “My teeth were yellowed, but cigarettes and coffee were too delicious for me to care. They made love in my mouth like it was New Year’s Eve and they had no resolutions.” And, spelling out the RideShare driver’s financial despair: “I had made $103.80 that day. … It worked out to near $9 an hour. ... Sure, a day’s pay in the hundreds sounds good, but we were chewed up and spat out to have it.”
Guns’ publisher describes the novel as “a gender-flipped reboot of the 1970s film Taxi Driver.” I watched for tie-ins as I started reading, but the characters and story pulled me in too fast and too deep to tread that kind of analytic water. Was the comp legit or contrived? In either case, it’s unnecessary. “Your Driver Is Waiting” has velocity and style of its own.
Just when the grimness of Damani’s subsistence threatens to sink her and the reader, the archetypal Good Thing happens. (Or so it seems.) Damani runs into a pretty, blond, blue-eyed, rich man’s daughter named Jolene. Literally. With her car. Just gently enough for the two to meet cute. Just enough to rescue Damani from her treadmill life. (Or so it seems.)
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“She smiled when she saw me or maybe that was just her face in pain,” Damani recalls. “Her blue eyes glistened, leading me to believe she had never cried a tear in her life. ‘Do you speak English,’ she said.”
Racist opener notwithstanding, Jolene and Damani are off to the races. Vividly conjured, their chemistry is palpable, as when Jolene greets Damani at one of the many do-gooder fundraisers she hosts. “Jolene ... ran her hand down my forearm, locking her fingers between mine before pulling them away like satin ribbons tickling my skin.”
Inverting the cliché about lesbian dating (see: the second-date U-Haul), Damani and Jolene have fast sex, bent over the hood of Damani’s car, followed by a seemingly interminable courtship during which nothing much happens between them — or in the novel. Contemplating her attraction to a woman who’s not only white but rich-white, Damani alternates between questioning Jolene’s commitment to the revolution and interrogating her own, torn as she is by Jolene’s offers of weekend getaways at her family’s country home. Finally, Damani lets her doubts go like a fistful of balloons, collapsing into Jolene’s luxury-padded lap.
Finally, yet too soon. Without specifying what exactly goes awry, I can confirm that the relationship’s denouement, triggered by the lovers’ racial and class disparities, is wrenching despite its predictability. What you won’t know until you turn the novel’s last pages is whether Damani and Jolene’s love can conquer all. And by “all,” I mean a seriously crappy move by Jolene that makes you wonder if the answer to Rodney King’s plaintive question “Can we all get along?” is still, in fact, “Not really.”
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It’s rare for a writer to marry such deep social consciousness with a comic, sultry romance, rarer still to pull that off in a way that satisfies and provokes the reader. Closing the book, curious about why Guns wrote it the way she did, I emailed her to find out.
“I’ll fast forward through all the rejections for previous manuscripts, rolling around on the floor butt naked in despair,” she wrote. “My first draft was a take-off on ‘Fatal Attraction.’ Once that book was out of my system, I could write ‘Your Driver Is Waiting’ as it was meant to be: a critique of the capitalist system, and the ways in which communities of resistance fight for change.”
What effect, then, does she hope her debut will have? “If I imagine my book’s greatest possible impact,” Guns replied, “I see readers so compelled by Damani’s story that they begin to act in solidarity towards dismantling our current system, redistributing wealth and power amongst all of us.”
That, I mused, is a lot to ask of a book.
“Oh, I’m not naïve,” Guns said. “I’m aware that my novel may be misread entirely. So, I’d be happy if ‘Your Driver Is Waiting’ makes people laugh, and brings in readers who normally find it difficult to engage with fiction.”
Maran is the author of a dozen books, including “The New Old Me” and “Why We Write.”
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