Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cabby


Cabby, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1980  Belmont-Tower Books

Predating his work on The Sharpshooter (and even the porn novel he wrote as “March Hastings”), Cabby was one of the first novels Len Levinson ever wrote. However despite being written in 1972, the novel went unpublished until 1980. Len has often mentioned this book to me, saying that it was his stab at literary greatness; he also told me he really was working as a cabbie at the time, driving at night and writing during the day.

Cabby is narrated by our protagonist, Arnold Shumsky, who like Alexander Frapkin leaves no detail spared as he tells us about his sleazy life. Shumsky though is a lot more withdrawn than fun-loving Frapkin, to the point where he’s very distant from the reader. In fact, Shumsky is almost a ghost in his own novel, very rarely interracting with those around him or telling us anything about himself or his past. This obviously is part of Len’s theme with the novel, but ultimately it makes for a sometimes-frustrating read, as you’d like to get to know more about the guy.

But from what can be gleaned between the lines, Shumsky was, like Len himself, once a public relations man who worked in Manhattan but whose life took a sudden tumble, ending up with Shumsky divorced, estranged from his young daughter, and living as a shell of his former self, driving a cab through the slums of ‘70s NYC. This is of course all mirrored in Len’s own life, though it’s safe to say without the bitterness or setbacks of Shumsky’s story; when I spoke to him the other year, Len repeated several times that he had “no regrets” that he’d quit his corporate life to become a fulltime writer.

If the novel lacks much of a plot or characterization, it more than makes up for it with Len’s usual knack for capturing ‘70s New York. Cabby almost acts like a guidebook, with Shumsky detailing which streets he uses to get around Manhattan and environs, telling us of the people and places there. We also get a good cross-section of the type of people who lived in NYC at the time, though again our narrator rarely interracts with them.

The closest things to a recurring plot in Cabby would be the on-again, off-again strike his local cabbie union throws, usually incited by a politcally-active driver named Rubino who is called “the Communist.” We get to meet a few of the other cabbies who work with Shumsky, from Gasoline Louie, a legendary cabbie who lives in his car, to The Eel, to Fishface, the dispatcher. Gasoline Louie is the only one who could be considered friends with Shumsky, coming over to use our protagonist’s bath every once in a while.

Shumsky drives his passengers around, seldom engaging them in conversation. When he does interract with them it usually leads to trouble. In one early incident he’s in a wreck with an aggressive driver; this leads to an entertaining sequence in which Shumsky is hassled by a shady lawyer named Herman Schmeck into suing the other driver, complete with trips to a quack chiropractor named Dr. Irving Ginsberg, who puts Shumsky in more pain than the wreck itself.

Another incident later in the novel has Shumsky held at gunpoint by a black passenger, who tells Shumsky he’s going to kill him. Instead he pistol whips him and takes his wallet. Later on Shumsky is reticent to drive another passenger into Harlem – we learn most cabbies are – and there’s a well-written part where the passenger, a soul singer, tells him she forgot her purse and asks Shumsky to come up to her apartment with her; Shumsky’s afraid he’s about to be killed, but the lady turns out to be on the level.

Speaking of ladies, Shumsky is also like Alexander Frapkin in that he takes part in the novel’s sex scenes all by himself. Shumsky is even sleazier than Frapkin, as we learn that he sometimes masturbates, while driving, when he gets a pretty passenger. Len writes a few fantasy sequences in which we get a peak into Shumsky’s imagination, as in one part he fantasizes himself as a knight about to ravish his gorgeous passenger, who appears in his fantasy as a damsel in distress. It all gets pretty XXX-rated, ending by veering back into reality, where we find Shumsky having finished playing with himself and dropping off the passenger without ever even speaking to her.

The biggest difference between Cabby and Len’s later novels is that here he really brings on the “literary” stuff, with themes and allusions and metaphors weaved into the novel, sometimes overbearingly so, particularly Shumsky’s penchant for thinking of himself as a Catholic saint, struggling and toiling for salvation. There are many sequences which almost go into stream-of-consciousness, as Len brings these blood-soaked fantasies to life, with Shumsky seeing Jesus bleeding on the cross in Times Square and etc. It gets to be a bit much at times, however the writing itself is good, and it's interesting to see a different side of Len's style.

Ultimately the main problem with Cabby is that there isn’t enough there to make it emotionally resonate with the reader. Sure, we realize Shumsky is going through a rough patch, hence how he has so completely shut himself off, but still – if we’re to empathize with the guy, we should get more of a peek into his soul. I hate the term “emotional connection,” which is bandied about in the world of marketing and is pretty much all modern advertisers strive for in their maudlin and sappy commercials, but still – there’s no emotional connection with Shumsky, hence his self-pity comes off as annoying.

Not that there are no flashes of enjoyment in the novel. For one I was happy to see that, even in his first novel, Len was serving up unusual and memorable supporting characters, not to mention his knack for featuring the same characters in different novels; Shumsky at one point is shocked when his old boss from the PR firm gets in his cab, and it’s none other than Larry Walters from Hype!. (And Shumsky himself made a cameo in The Bar Studs – yet he was more memorable in those few pages than he is in the entirety of Cabby.)

After reading Cabby, I asked Len what his thoughts were on the novel. I was surprised to see that he felt much the same about it as I had:

Cabby was supposed to be my breakthrough novel. I actually thought it would propel me to widespread critical acclaim and lots of money, possibly even a movie deal.

First I should provide context. I quit my PR job in 1971 to become a writer. I then wrote a novel which took about a year, and got rejected everywhere. I was running out of money and needed a part-time job that would permit me to continue writing.

So I became a cabdriver on the cruel streets of New York City back when cabdrivers were murdered fairly regularly. Some drove during the day because they couldn’t handle the dangers of the night. Others drove during the night because they couldn’t handle daytime traffic. I drove on the night shift for the Metropolitan Garage located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, a ten minute walk from my apartment.

All sorts of people sat in the back seat of my taxicabs, from Wall Street brokers to prostitutes, movie stars, working people, cops, criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, even my former PR boss Lee Solters got into my cab one night, astonished to see me behind the wheel. While driving them around, I felt inspired to write a novel about a cabdriver who didn’t have all his marbles, and who in many (but not all) ways was me.

I drove on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays nights. My shifts began at 4pm and ended at 4am. When I wasn’t driving, I was home writing the novel that became Cabby. I had virtually no social life during this period and sank into a very strange, isolated frame of mind which became reflected in the novel.

When Joe Kenney asked me to write something about Cabby, I thought I should reread it, because I hadn’t read it for around 42 years, and still remembered it as The Great American Taxicab Novel.

I read it yesterday morning (6/24/2014)and soon came to the demoralizing realization that it wasn’t The Great American Taxicab Novel, and in fact is a very flawed novel written before I started writing action/adventure books for Belmont-Tower, before I came under the tutelage of the great Peter McCurtin, and before I understood the art of storytelling.

Cabby really isn’t a story. It’s mostly a series of cab rides interspersed with episodes in the life of a semi-psychotic cabdriver who’d been traumatized by the break-up of his marriage, as I was still traumatized by the break-up of mine. It has lots of authentic early 1970s color and some interesting scenes but overall doesn’t have narrative tension, which detracts from readability. Cabby was written before Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro was released in 1976, yet certain curious similarities can be found between the movie and my novel.

Cabby was published in 1980, so the screenwriter Paul Schrader couldn’t have read it. And I hadn’t seen Taxi Driver before I wrote Cabby. But Schrader and I approached cab driving somewhat similarly. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious.

There are two hard-core pornographic sequences in Cabby, which I found embarrassing to read yesterday, although I suppose there’s truth in them somewhere. Men really do go crazy over women and have grotesque sexual fantasies. Those two sequences were kind of disgusting, from my viewpoint at age 79. Human sexuality is very different at age 37 compared with age 79. I must’ve been a very strange person back in 1972.

Finally I finished Cabby and delivered it to my then literary agent, Elaine Markson. I was very proud of it, and considered myself the next Henry Miller or a variation on Charles Bukowski. Elaine actually liked it and submitted it to major publishers. An editor at Little, Brown wanted to publish it as a hardcover. I don’t remember this editor’s name; she was Chinese or Japanese, and took me to lunch at a fancy mid-Manhattan restaurant where she said Cabby was an outstanding, original novel. Unfortunately, her supervisors at Little, Brown didn’t agree, and rejected the novel. Subsequently it was rejected by numerous other publishers.

After writing Cabby, I desperately wanted to escape cabdriving. Finally I hit on the plan of writing a hardcore pornographic novel, which became Private Sessions by March Hastings, published by Midwood, a subsidiary of Belmont Tower. That led to writing action-adventure novels for BT, where my first editor was Peter McCurtin, who taught me many lessons about storytelling. Finally my so-called literary career took off and I didn’t need to drive a cab anymore. BT even published Cabby which I dedicated it to Milburn Smith, who succeeded Peter as my editor.

Cabby was an attempt by a neophyte to write a complex literary novel, but didn’t quite succeed, I don’t think. I can’t recommend this novel, but writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. We can be too critical or not critical enough. I haven’t read Joe’s review yet, and am very curious about his opinion.

4 comments:

Will Errickson said...

Wow, I remember that paperback cover from my days in a used bookstore in the late '80s! What a great image--and great review, of course. Love the author's insights into his own work: "Human sexuality is very different at age 37 compared with age 79. I must’ve been a very strange person back in 1972." Awesome.

AG said...

Nothing worst than an author deconstructing himself with regret.

It was a good book.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments. AG, Len emailed to tell me he heard there was a positive review of Cabby on Amazon, so now he is wondering if he "brought it off, after all." I enjoyed the novel, but didn't love it like "The Last Buffoon" and "Shark Fighter."

Will, that's great you actually saw the book back in the days...the cover image is great, but narrator Shumsky looks nothing like that guy. And yeah, Len always includes some gems in the pieces he writes -- currently he is back in NYC for the first time in several years, and is sending out these hilarious reports on his trip that I think I'll put together and post here on the blog.

Kelly Alves said...

I read this book when I was far too young to be reading it. I absolutely loved it. Shumsky was a freak, alright, living a disconnected life, but he looked on his fares with perception and compassion. My only copy fell apart, and I for one would be happy to hear of a rerelease.