The book’s narrator and protagonist, Damani Krishanthan, is, mercifully, not a traumatized Vietnam vet like Travis Bickle, though an inventory of the trunk of her car — “a bottle of bleach, some rope, a baseball bat” — lets us know she’s ready for just about anything. A bodybuilding bisexual Tamil immigrant in her early 30s, Damani drives for the exploitative RideShare app in an unnamed American city that is disrupted daily by protests and counterprotests. “So many straws have broken so many camels’ backs,” she observes. Damani is also broke. Behind on her bills and facing eviction, she is equal parts yearning and frustration. “Nine dollars an hour. I could not do this for much longer.”
When not driving, Damani pumps iron, tends to her ailing, recently widowed mother and hangs out at a gathering spot called Doo Wop, which is home base for a community of the marginalized: undocumented immigrants, queer people and sex workers — very much the population that Bickle longed to see washed off the streets of New York. Guns vividly captures this metropolitan milieu in the book’s opening chapters which roll by like a long panning shot depicting inner city life in all its complexity, inequality, squalor and joy. In place of Bernard Herrmann’s jazzy “Taxi Driver” score, I imaged these scenes taking place with rapper M.I.A.’s music thumping in the background.
Unable to afford therapy, Damani relies on her close circle of friends at Doo Wop, a handful of kind regular passengers and a vlogging Internet shrink archly named Dr. Thelma Hermin Hesse. This makeshift mental safety net feels tenuous at best, and, like most other aspects of Damani’s existence, it proves unsustainable.
While out driving one night, Damani collides with the woman who will upend her life. Like Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy in the movie, Jolene Marie Barnett-Smith is blond, beautiful and White. A social worker by day and a social justice warrior by night, she comes from money but presents herself as an ally. Damani is smitten, but there are red flags. Their first date is a fundraiser at a fancy cafe where, Damani feels, “the decor was judging me.” On their second date, Jolene equates the loss of her dog to the death of Damani’s father. Throughout the book, Guns skewers the obliviousness of the privileged. Microaggressions abound among the RideShare passengers — as well as a few macroaggressions.
Nevertheless, Damani is besotted with Jolene, and that attraction leads to delusion. “I saw how she lived with her heart before anything else,” Damani says just before they have sex for the first time. This is not the sort of mush we’ve come to expect from our fiery narrator. But the sex is great and when Jolene suggests that they go to her family’s summer house for a week, the prospect of such luxury is almost too much for Damani to bear. Before they can depart, however, everything goes sideways when Damani introduces Jolene to her friends at Doo Wop. Jolene gets into a heated argument with them and does something that suggests her name should really be Karen.
From there the novel descends into the kind of mayhem that characterizes the final scenes of “Taxi Driver.” Damani even shaves her head into a Bickle-hawk. I walked away from this book as if I’d survived a car crash, feeling shocked and uncertain. What just happened? Is Damani’s turn at the end an indictment of the dehumanizing pressure of the gig economy or is it a narrative cop-out? And what are we to make of Jolene, who remains a cipher to the finish? Each reader will have to decide whether her shallowness is a flaw of the novel or an accurate portrayal of the flattening power of white privilege. Either way, our driver Priya Guns deserves a big tip for taking us on such an enthralling ride.
Jon Michaud’s new book, “Last Call at Coogan’s: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar,” will be published in June.
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