5 out of 5
Hilarious, and heartbreaking. Maybe a couple hundred pages about nothing but a taxi driver’s – a “hack” – musings, and then also a page-ripping thriller about a killer on the streets of Chicago.
Welcome to the very, very real and lived-in world of Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel, with white cabbie Eddie Miles’ in the middle of two serial killers’ paths of destruction, partially by happenstance, and partially because he can’t keep looking away from what he’s seeing as he drives his route to and fro between the rich neighborhoods and the crumbling ones, the drunken privileged staggering into his cab, and the whores who flash him as he drives on to whichever destination, enforcing unwritten rules about who is and who isn’t “safe” to pick up.
Whenever there are pulp books that are immersed in shop talk of whichever featured industry – cops, gangster, dancers, con men, etc. – a good chunk of writers get it “right,” or at least make it feel researched and legit, but there’s also often a layer of remove: here’s the paragraph where I explain how things work; here’s the exchange where I drop some hep terms; and then here’s the rest of the book with the actual story. Only the pros are able to truly blend things together such that the style and tone feel tied to the tale, but even then, there can be moments that stick out, when we’re stepping slightly besides the plot to pause and flavor the characters. The rarest of the rare: when every page matters. Jack Clark meets this qualification. Chapters and pages are seemingly just Eddie meeting up with his fellow drivers at the pancake house, exchanging stories and tips – almost all of it casual, locker room racist talk, puzzled by those espousing various rules and theories being of the race they might be defaming – or joshing with his passengers, giving them shit-talk and sneaking in extra charges here and there. Much of this is interesting in an inside-baseball kind of way, or hilarious – the snarky exchanges with customers have the tang of real life – but the sneaky skill here is that the entire story is actually delivered this way, with Eddie learning about the series of murders of cab drivers in the area, and then also seeing the first-hand results of a second killer – someone hunting down and viscerally slaughtering street walkers. And because all of this rolls through in the same patter, it doesn’t feel like we’re being led down a narrow plotty tunnel, or forcefed an opinion: there are undoubtedly “rules” we all follow when walking home alone at night, or opinions we may have that are colored by a particular experience, or the experiences of those around us, and where is the line between being open-minded and perhaps naive, and close-minded and racist; when do we act out of a need to protect ourselves – physically, emotionally – versus some more altruistic “need” to do “right?”
I’m obviously very much simplifying the race question – and the book, written in ’96 (and if I’m following correctly, self-published by Clark when he was a driver himself), then picked up for publication by HCC in 2010, may have handled the approach on this differently if written in modern times – and my opinion, as always, is likely made “easier” by being a white guy with disposable income, but from that privileged perspective, while I found the locker room talk dated in a certain sense, it was also refreshingly… honest. There’s no attempt to dress it up and frame it. Eddie seems to have a line in his head between judging people when he’s in the cab versus out, but he’s still inherently racist, and seemingly, so is everyone in ’90s Chicago. This is little different than when a movie or a book cops to a point of view that feels woefully shortsighted – Clark has stepped back, given us a slice of life from a particular time and place, and lets us make up our own minds about it.
That this is also bound to the above-mentioned mysteries is astounding. The cab-killer aspect leans into the racial commentary – who do you let in your cab? Who’s a suspect? – while the prostitute killer allows Clark / Eddie to sift through thoughts on quality of life in general: what do these girls have to look forward to? Why do they do what they do? while he’s eyeing the girl flashing him her wares, or smiling at the customer in the backseat getting a blowjob from his girlfriend. Wended into the background is Eddie’s personal life – a divorce; a child he doesn’t see. A “girlfriend” who lives in his building.
It’s a tight, punishing 200 pages, punctuated by laughs that then maybe have us feeling a bit guilty about laughing. When the story concludes, when Clark finally rears the title into the text; a perfect, lasting kick in the guts.