Find the latest breaking news and information on the top stories, science, business, entertainment, politics, and more.

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

When you purchase books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission Boekhandel.orgwhose fees support independent bookstores.

Four nights after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Skylight Books, the beloved indie store, hosted a community vigil. Crying, raging writers read hastily scribbled poems and essays. Audience members muffled questions, including this one from an ashen young man: “Can we still write novels?”

“We must!” thundered a local writer, quoting Toni Morrison: “’This is precisely the time when artists get to work.’ Not when everything is fine, but in times of fear. That’s our job!’”

Along with contemporary activist authors such 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 lead is author Priya Guns. With the publication of her piercingly funny, scathing censorship debut, “Your driver is waitingGuns places itself squarely (or should I say, hiply) in the Morrison canon.

Guns’ revelation of America’s young, burning underclass 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 passed away – she blames the fast food chain for overworking and underpaying him – and her disabled mother is physically, financially and emotionally dependent on her broke daughter. When we meet Damani, she takes a mandatory hour off the app – “(Clause 7, no more than 12 consecutive hours of driving)” – taking endless calls from her demanding mother.

“I wish I could say I started the day with the four very effective habits of the rich,” Damani says in the introduction. “Only, I get home at two or three some mornings, have trouble sleeping most nights, and get up at seven.”

Nor do the very powerful rich hang out in squats in abandoned warehouses as Damani’s crew has repurposed as “our own gated community.” On Doo Wop’s utopian campus, protected by wild blackberry bushes and a human-based security system, undocumented workers eat free meals, homeless people sleep in provided tents, and bicycles are available to borrow for free, and clothing is up for grabs, including Damani’s “cherished army.” ‘. surplus coat someone else had cultivated by sewing patches over flags and brands. Doo Wop also hosts activist gatherings of gig workers like Damani, who are organizing against the system that exploits them.

From the first pages of the book, our protagonist’s life of not-so-quiet desperation is driven home by her creator’s powerful prose. Damani looks in her car’s rearview mirror and says, “My teeth were yellow, but cigarettes and coffee were too good for me to care. They made love in my mouth like it was New Year’s Eve and they had no good intentions.” And to express the RideShare driver’s financial desperation, “I had made $103.80 that day. … It came out to almost $9 an hour. … Sure, a day’s salary in the hundreds sounds good, but we were chewed up and spit out to have it.

The Guns publisher describes the novel as “a gender-reversed reboot of the 1970s film Taxi Driver”. I looked for tie-ins when I started reading, but the characters and story pulled me in too fast and too deeply to enter that kind of analytical water. Was the comp legit or contrived? In both cases it is unnecessary. “Your Driver Is Waiting” has its own speed and style.

Just when the grimness of Damani’s livelihood threatens to sink her and the reader, the archetypal Good Thing happens. (Or so it seems.) Damani comes across a beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed daughter of a wealthy man named Jolene. Literal. With her car. Just soft enough for the two to meet cute. Just enough to save Damani from her treadmill life. (Or so it seems.)

“She smiled when she saw me, or maybe that was just her face in pain,” Damani recalled. “Her blue eyes sparkled, which made me think she had never cried a tear in her life. ‘Do you speak English,’ she said.”

Despite the racist opener, Jolene and Damani go to the races. Evoked vividly, their chemistry is palpable, such as when Jolene greets Damani at one of the many benefactor fundraisers she hosts. “Jolene… ran her hand down my forearm, closing her fingers between mine before pulling them away like satin ribbons tickling my skin.”

Damani and Jolene reverse the cliché about lesbian dating (see: the second date U-Haul), have quick sex, hunched over the hood of Damani’s car, followed by a seemingly endless courtship in which not much happens between them – or in the novel. As she ponders her attraction to a woman who is not just white but rich white, Damani alternates between questioning Jolene’s commitment to the revolution and questioning her own, torn as she is by Jolene’s offers of weekend getaways to her family’s mansion. Finally, Damani releases her doubts like a handful of balloons falling onto Jolene’s luxuriously padded lap.

Finally, but still too soon. Without specifying what exactly goes wrong, I can confirm that the denouement of the relationship, caused by the racial and class differences between the lovers, is heartbreaking despite its predictability. What you won’t know until you turn the last pages of the novel is if Damani and Jolene’s love can conquer all. And by “all of them” I mean a seriously lousy move by Jolene that makes you wonder if the answer to Rodney King’s plaintive question “Can we all get along?” is in fact still “Not really.”

It’s rare for a writer to unite such deep social awareness with a comic, sultry romance, and rarer still to pull it off in a way that satisfies him. And provokes the reader. When I closed the book, curious as to why Guns wrote it that way, I emailed her to find out.

“I will fast forward all the rejections for previous manuscripts, rolling on the floor naked in despair,” she wrote. “My first version was a launch of ‘Fatal Attraction’. Once that book was out of my system, I was able to write ‘Your Driver Is Waiting’ the way it was meant to be written: a critique of the capitalist system and the ways resistance communities fight for change.”

What effect does she hope her debut will have? “Imagine the greatest possible impact of my book,” replied Guns, “I see readers so awed by Damani’s story that they begin to act in solidarity to dismantle our current system and redistribute wealth and power among all of us. “

That, I mused, is a lot to ask of a book.

“Oh, I’m not naive,” Guns said. ‘I am aware that my novel can be completely misread. So I’d be happy if ‘Your Driver Is Waiting’ makes people laugh and attracts readers who normally struggle with fiction.”

Mission accomplished.

Maran is the author of a dozen books, including ‘The New Old Me’ and ‘Why We Write’.