June 20, 2012
Book Review: Hack

Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab, written by Dmitry Samarov and published by The University of Chicago Press, is a present tense, first-person instance collection thematically tied together by experiences of a working taxi cab driver in Chicago, Illinois. For those of you unaware with the term, an instance collection is a series of thematically tied nonfiction stories that each contain their own individual movement while containing a larger overall story when grouped together. 

Hack is no different. Dmitry has experienced quite a bit in his years cabbing though, so he graciously invites his audience into his world one day at a time, by grouping the stories based on what day of the week they’re set. On Sunday, you’ll get stories about the hot summer sun and others about the dauntingly cold Chicago winters, but you still get an overall picture about what the day is like. Each story is either set in a cab or takes place while Dmitry waits for his cab at the service lot, all of which go to illustrate him as being a professional, somewhat ambivalent cabbie who bides his time by sketching or general people watching. We know he’s a white cab driver, but he doesn’t define himself by his race—which becomes a theme throughout the story when Samarov blurs the line of race, often leaving the race of his own fares ambiguous, though conclusions can be drawn based on tone, neighborhood, etc. At first, I found it to be kind of a hassle, but when it’s necessary, Dmitry doesn’t let up on character descriptions—only when he’s trying to nail the point that anyone can be anything, a theme that runs throughout the whole memoir, does Dmitry let the audience draw their own conclusions about whether our riders have aligned themselves with a particular ethnicity—a point that I applaud, because while race in most novels tends to be ambiguous, it’s hardly ever with purpose.

Dmitry’s greatest skill is painting a portrait of Chicago—not simply in the the places, the sights, or the sounds of the city, but the very spirit of the city. Another theme that continues through the novel is how Chicagoans are all intrinsically alone, yet collected together and expected to manage with one and other like civilized human beings—a belief that I find true and have grown to endure in my years living here. Samarov doesn’t mind telling us where his fares are picked up or where they’re going—it’s all part of the story, the journey of each of these one spot characters that neither he or us will likely ever see again. He helps to show us that each of these people has their own goals and their own journeys, but continues to show that not everyone sticks together—and those who do tend to do it under a veil of being strangers of one and other, further tying the theme that we are alone here but alone en mass. 

Samarov doesn’t fail to hide how ridiculous the weather of this city is—whether he’s struggling to stay cool in a city that seems to absorb heat or stay warm in the same city that’s buried beneath a plaster of ice only months later, he illustrates the tumultuous nature of not just the city’s weather, but the traffic and the citizens. Much like the weather, Samarov also changes between humorous and serious tones in order to depict the very real nature of the stories he’s writing. There’s even a special section called, “Holidays,” where Samarov goes on to illustrate the drunken proclivities of this city’s denizens and how similarly they behave on the chaotic Friday or Saturday nights. Still, Samarov is a watcher—not a partier or even a character in the city as much. He remains ambivalent, getting angry only within a few instances, denying the sexual advances of his fares, and trying to keep a cool spirit in order to live in a city that beats him down. He doesn’t go on about his dreams or aspirations—he’s a character who considers himself lucky to have what he has and is curiously enthralled by the animals whom he fairies from one place to another, which is perhaps the most notable employment of his theme—that we are simply alone here. 

Overall, the book was a quick read and dotted with several of Samarov’s sketches that he did while waiting in his cab or later on. Though they aren’t necessary for illustrating what he sees, because he so well depicts what goes on in his cab, they are fun caricatures to help us see things the way he sees them, from the twisted point of view of an artist that many of us truly are. I would recommend this novel to anyone who has had to endure this city as he or I have and to anyone who just wants to see nonfiction done well, as rarely as that happens in my opinion. Though by comparison to the last novel I read, Drive, Samarov doesn’t define the troubles of driving through the city quite as much. Perhaps it’s just out of habit of one who spends his entire adult life behind the wheel.

Along with all that, Samarov also goes into his origins about becoming a cab driver and his past experiences that have brought him to Chicago. It’s just about all we need to know, because who really wants to get to know their cab driver anyway?

The Riahi Rating:
5/5. It’s nice to see nonfiction do what it’s supposed to do and not derail itself on the personal thoughts of the author, while still giving us full, fantastic images of the stories as they unfold. 

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