Shakespeare’s plays have long been the gold standard of drama. Opening on scenes like witches toiling over brews, quarreling families, and a ghost sighting, the Shakespearean play starts late, right before the moment when his characters’ lives change. The building of momentum, decisions that doom fates, a hero’s solo journey as his control diminishes—as does our hero. Tragic flaws, the supernatural, a dichotomy of good versus evil, and—the beating heart of Shakespeare—catharsis, are just some of the elements in tragedy that have shaped narratives for centuries.
In The Last Taxi Driver, one would not, at first glance, assume an Elizabethan dramatic structure at play in the life of an unlikely hero, Lou Bishoff, a hammy Buddhist cab driver who specializes in transporting thugs, addicts, ex-cons, and eccentrics around the fictional town Gentry, Mississippi. However, much of what makes Lee Durkee’s novel so delightful and surprising is his ability to dig beneath the surface of this funny, well-told odyssey, which channels a Shakespearean tragedy. This twenty-year follow up to his debut novel, Rides of the Midway, was worth the wait.
The Last Taxi Driver is more of a transcendental journey than a story-driven novel. There isn’t an absolute plotline, rather, most of the book details Lou’s experiences, observations, his past life, and how he’s arrived at this day that triggers a subtle transformation. As we cut into the marrow of his character, in an oddly effective move, we get closest to Lou by losing trust in him as he becomes unhinged. By removing his defenses, his humor and candor, we see who Lou really is, and what drives him. The result is Durkee’s cathartic achievement.
The novel charts what is certainly a monumental day and a half in Lou’s life. But it doesn’t seem that way from the start. We open on his first fare, a passenger fresh out of prison on his way to see his old girlfriend. “Maybe you should call her first,” Lou suggests, a quick line that signals this isn’t the first time he’s picked up an ex-con. He knows how this is going to go. As expected, Lou and “Opposite Earl,” as Lou dubs his passenger (most get eclectic nicknames), arrive at an empty, dark house. Lou takes Opposite Earl to three more ex-girlfriend’s homes in search of someone to take him in, each unsuccessful until Lou ends up leaving Opposite Earl back at the first house they visited. As Lou drives away, Opposite Earl sits on the lawn, happy as a clam, clutching a stolen bottle of wine. Freedom is sweet.
This is the life of a cabbie. Between these one-ride misadventures, Lou’s life unfolds. His personal situation isn’t great. Uber is coming to town, putting his job and future at risk. “Retirement? As far as I can tell this Town Car is my retirement plan,” Lou says to explain his dire financial situation. His girlfriend, Miko, is a chronic depressive who he can’t bring himself to break up with; his boss, Stella, tends to give him the worst additional fares just before his shift is up. Lou needs the money, and he’s sort of a sucker, so he always takes the fare, infuriatingly, and he curses as he resigns to his fate. As the novel unravels, it’s clear that Lou has a history of letting his peers take advantage of him, a thread that develops into an unexpected revelation toward the end of the book. There are real consequences to Lou’s inactions. It’s his tragic flaw.
Lou’s aspirations once lay in literature—that is, he wrote one novel but could not conjure a second. He was also a professor, however, when he returned to Mississippi (where he was raised) he was fired from his university after an altercation that put an end to teaching for good. But before he lost his job, Lou taught a course in Shakespeare—his career dream. Lou is a huge fan, which is clear from the Bard air freshener that dangles from the rearview mirror and is sandwiched between a flying saucer and Big Foot. There’s a lot of stink that comes into the Lincoln, but there’s also a lot to be said about the menagerie of fresheners that dangle due to Lou’s somewhat obsessive need to have a well-smelling vehicle. Shakespeare is a reminder of what Lou could have been, aspirations now gone way to wintergreen scratch and sniff. The flying saucer is an indicator of Lou’s enthusiasm for aliens, which serves as a funny anecdote throughout the book and comes in play later in the novel. It offers the stranger side of Lou. He picks up a self-proclaimed “car witch” at a bar:
“I looked up at the stars too and started searching for UFOs. Ever since I was a kid, back when that famous flying saucer landed in Pascagoula and kidnapped those two fishermen, I’d had this obsession with looking for UFOs. Mayfern and I had even discussed UFOs that night at the bar. She’d told me that gray aliens kept abducting her to steal her ovaries. And that’s what I was thinking about while Zach kept searching for a falling star, about Mayfern picking me up in a flying saucer and us having wild incantation sex inside it while this circle of eggheaded aliens watched us go at it.”
Durkee’s prose hits the right pitch. Told from Lou’s perspective, it’s a casual, voice-driven read with smart intimate humor. We’re sitting right between Lou’s eyes, rolling into his head with funny memories like the passage above that show more than just a rag-tag cabbie with a witty sensibility. Lou’s lived, and life didn’t exactly unfold as he expected. He’s got some humor about it, but he’s also sad.
As he’s reading his Buddism paperback in the Lincoln, Lou finds what he assumes is a generic version of Adderall lodged in the floorboard. He pops the pill. What ensues is a quiet descent down a rabbit hole. Characters reemerge, then leave, and a series of absurd events continue, getting weirder and weirder with each fare. An exchange happens with Tony, Stella’s deadbeat son, that challenges Lou’s willpower and sanity. At the end of his shift the pill sits thick in his system, and then Lou is sent on a long run to Memphis. Falling at a quiet rate, Lou’s transformation is not noticeable at first. Durkee takes his time and carefully shifts the plane to a fogged reality that unwraps Lou’s destiny.
The Last Taxi Driver
By Lee Durkee
Tin House Books
Published March 3, 2020
Sara Webster is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She earned her MFA from NYU, and in her spare time teaches Creative Writing at Colorado Free University. You can find her at www.sarawebster.net, or on Twitter @sarawebbee. She's at work on her first novel.