Last Taxi Driver, The, By Lee Durkee, 232 pgs.

Aug 11, 2020

The Last Taxi Driver is a road novel, and the road is the streets of a fictional North Mississippi town called Gentry and surrounding areas, traveled by a cab driver named Lou, and, oh, the people you’ll meet as you ride with him. It’s Southern literature, and accordingly the characters are colorful and sometimes grotesque. However, where other great writers in that tradition, like Charles Portis, create worlds that, while not quite fantastic, are almost magically real, Lee Durkee’s Gentry is rooted firmly in our America. The novel almost makes other fiction in that Southern tradition seem frivolous by comparison, though I don’t know that this would have occurred to me in Before Trump.

To make a living as a cab driver in this small town requires long, hard hours, but it can be done because so many of Lou’s passengers can’t afford their own cars—but instead require someone else’s car to get to their job. That was a constituency I’d forgotten about. On my bus commutes to work (before COVID-19), bus stops were frequently bedecked with cab company business cards, but I’m blessed with a 2.5-hour window of time to begin work. If I had a shift that started at this-time-only, my quality of life would drop a few floors. A 2.5-hour window is not something that would ever occur to most of Lou’s passengers.

From the novel: [I] haul a regular to work at the Winchester plant, which makes a type of bullet. Next I haul a waiter to Applebee’s, which makes a type of food. After that I pick up my regular Leesha from her decrepit trailer park off Route 5. While in my car Leesha is invariably talking on her cell to someone who never says a word. Leesha manages at Burger King.…

During his twelve-to-fourteen hour shifts, Lou thinks a lot about the struggle to be a good person, to be kind, and Durkee regularly surprises the reader with Lou’s decisions to be kind or not to be kind—or actually, Lou decides to be kind, and reflexively falls into the not-exactly-a-choice not to be kind. Kindness, Lou teaches us, requires vigilance, or we probably will forget to practice it. The encounter between Lou and his last passenger, in the last chapter, is essentially humanity encapsulated into one cab ride.

The novel is as lively as fiction gets (though having written that, I realize that I haven’t really captured how dark the novel gets. One chapter is Lou’s remembering what it was like to be a student in the ’70s days of Mississippi desegregation busing, and horrific days they were). The audience that would love this book is large enough for ten printings or more. The Last Taxi Driver makes me wish that literature had the equivalent of Netflix’s home screen, something that could display the novel as prominently as Netflix displayed Tiger in the Sewer, or whatever it was called; fuck you. –Jim Woster (Tin House Books, tinhouse.com)

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