Hack by Dmitry Samarov (A Review by Brian Libgober)

The University of Chicago Press

184 pages/$18

If Augie March were a real person, it seems likely that his memoirs would have turned out a lot more like Hack than the novel Saul Bellow ended up writing.  Consider the basic premise: a high-minded Chicagoan of Russian Jewish upbringing, seemingly destined to move upward in society, makes some unfortunate life choices and slides into a demoralizing lower-class profession. The story begs the question, “What was the decision that marked an irremediable turning point?”  In Bellow’s case, the answer was following a girl to Mexico in order to train bald eagles to hunt lizards.  In Samarov’s case, art school.

There is little discussion of Samarov’s artistic ambitions in Hack, though his art is strewn throughout the book.  Indeed, there is little description of Samarov himself in Hack, although Samarov is patently everywhere.  The book is essentially a collection of blogposts that Samarov worked on to distract himself from the crudity of his day job.  As such, it reads much like a journal.  None of the vignettes which compose the book mention his hair or eye color, his height or weight, or any details about his facial features.  Without these, the mental image his stories convey are barebones outlines, similar to the artwork he includes throughout the text.  The absence of ego in this memoir creates an unusual imbalance, one which the reader is compelled to fill.  The mountain of taxi-driving related horror-stories, conveyed using a vocabulary that bespeaks obvious intelligence, makes the question of why Samarov is driving a cab increasingly urgent.  Ironically, the only time he gives an outright answer is at the the outset, that he “needed a job,” that restaurants and bars are “vortices of bullshit drama and conflict,“ and that he has “never been good with authority figures.”

This nagging disjuncture is one of several in the text.  Another is that Samarov says repeatedly that he despises humanity, at the same time as he is obviously a huge fan of people.  Most of the book is devoted to descriptions of the various types that use cabs, which it turns out is essentially everyone.  At several points, he admits that his effort in writing is to document some fraction of the human experience and better understand the human comedy.   His love of people is not simply abstract: he invariably grants every request for people to smoke in the car, make-out in the car, or have sex in the car.  Samarov doesn’t even throw out the passenger who says, upon entering the car, “Ashland and Cortez.  Take me there fast.  There’s cocaine there.”  He doesn’t give people who can’t pay a hard time, and he even helps old people carry their groceries.  His transparently sympathetic nature does a great deal to explain why it is that riders like him so much, and so frequently try to befriend him.  At the same time, it also explains why every time Samarov mentions his distaste for humanity, it strikes a false note.

Besides this hiccup, Hack is a marvelous unity of style and subject.  In a way, the stylistics of his storytelling mirrors the experience of being on a cab ride.  They both start in media res, move briskly from stopping point to stopping point, and end somewhat abruptly, with some conclusion or other being taken away.  On the way, one gets to see a lot of what makes Chicago the delightfully weird place it is: autonomous shopping carts zooming around the south side, dive hotels in the middle of downtown, etc.  Utterly unpretentious, written by someone with a good ear for language, Hack has the charm of a zeen, with the polish one would expect from a major publishing house’s offering.  Buy it, read it, pass around, and feel good about helping this cabbie get off the streets and on with his life.

*

Brian Libgober is a writer and freelance mathematician.  His work has appeared in Sliced Bread, The Midway Review, and The New York Times Magazine (Online).  He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel.

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