Amid the archeology of literature, there are novels easily found, gauzed only by a light crumble of soil, and there are true artifacts: buried six feet under. Their chance encounter is particularly worth talking about because one has to wonder how in the history of the civilized world this pairing of ink and paper has not continued its glory, glory, hallelujah.
In the 1970s and '80s, Helen Potrebenko was a cherished and important Vancouver writer, well known for her early writing in Pedestal, Canada's first women's-liberation newspaper, and for her numerous books that included short stories, novels, poems and plays. Hers was the significant working-class urban feminist voice. She also had jokes, good ones. Modern Times, a major bookstore in San Francisco, had a big sign telling customers that if they only read one book in 1975, it should be Taxi!.
New Star Books published Taxi! during a time when "political" was an urgent rather than a dismissed word. (The novel is now available from Lazara Press.) According to Potrebenko, "Women here were very concerned that there should be literature with which we could identify, and since most women are working class and find very little about people like us to read, we were going to rectify that."
Taxi! rectifies a great deal more than that and enjoys a born-again pertinence today. It's wonderfully refreshing and confrontational 34 years later, as we are humped by the recession. On Page 11, the ring from the line "Capitalism has begun its cataclysmic degeneration" would make Karl Marx sit up in his grave and nod, in unison, with the rest of us bamboozled by recent banking bollockology.
Shannon, a sharp and mordantly funny cab driver, delivers as many apt nuggets as passengers while she navigates, examines and confronts the city, clinging to her sanity, among the inane blather of those tripping into, out of and around her cab.
It is this perfect combination of the cab crisscrossing, taking the reader into distinctive Vancouver neighbourhoods, and the varied population who open and slam the door that situates the reader in place and time.
It's a novel to read for then and now: Potrebenko's unique voice and perfectly paced writing render it in witty exchanges and jazzy Chekhovian musings, such as: "She was sometimes a personable person. Sometimes people called her beautiful and sometimes ugly, which goes to show she isn't a proper woman since with proper women there is no doubt whether they are beautiful or ugly."
And: "Shannon fell in love with Ronnie in October but preoccupied as are all drivers with making money, he didn't notice until several weeks had gone by."
Or: "She would have preferred a woman friend but she hardly ever met any women. Few cab drivers are women and few women earn enough money to ride in cabs much."
Or: "Sundays are always slow unless it snows and it rarely snows in August in Vancouver."
The fragmented style of the novel conveys the fragmented nature of the job. Discombobulating images flitter though Shannon's wing and rear-view mirrors, and the snips and snipes of conversation, or more accurately interrogation, gate-crash her ears. I've got no money. Airport. Do you ball? Are you married? How do you like cab driving? What sort of job is this? Where can I buy a woman?
Unusually for a character in a novel, but like many people currently, she is looking for a job. We learn of the extrapolations of scoring shifts as a cab driver, and the specific extrapolation for a female driver. Encore, Do you ball?
Vancouver was sleazier in 1975. Constant heckling of women and soliciting for sex, heroin traded where crack moves sleeve to hand now, but the same rituals existed. As Shannon observes: "The city never really changed: it had a way of transforming change like a great sprawling organism which absorbs foreignness into its own body."
Resolutely class-conscious, Shannon elucidates on the class divisions in her city. Indeed, Taxi! contains informative mini-polemics on Canadian social, political and labour history. If you didn't live here in 1970s, you can deduce plenty of clues about it from this novel.
The structure of the book mirrors a "work" shift, so we repeatedly meet Shannon and greet what and whom she encounters, much of which drives her bananas. Her world outside work mainly concerns visiting her friend's baby, in whom she delights, and her pal Gerald, an unemployed, yogurt-eating James Joyce devotee. Taxi! establishes the rhythm of an ordinary working life at its core and acknowledges that to survive the day, the working poor need humour, quiet endurance and the neck of a stretched turtle.
A taxi driver cannot decide which social class or individual steps into her car, so in they all pile, frothing and flawed: businessmen, the 20-year-old kid, psych patients, junkies, people dodging cops, fat, old, bald, drunk, dirty, clean, flowery-dressed. What more drama could be needed when the binoculars are trained on the undiluted peculiarities of humankind?
Despite being warned against talking politics with the punters, Shannon argues full on with them over the status of women, capitalism and the ruling class. Drivers are also not to complain about safety to the safety committee, even though the cars are falling apart and there is the constant demand to turn in high sheets.
However, what the novel ultimately disputes is the simplistic notion there are better jobs to go to. For many people, there are not. It's a faithful and forensic examination of work, the proletariat and the lack of choices therein. If we think of the increasing numbers of people who wake to face this reality, Taxi! enlightens us that the problem is not with them but with the problematic system that surrounds them and the diversity that is circumstance.
Taxi! gave us a bold voice in 1975. Open it to be amused, invigorated and, well, outraged.
Anakana Schofield is a writer living and working in Vancouver. She has a hearty interest in literature and the working class.