A review of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men by Kate Wisel

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Driving in cars with Homeless Men
by Kate Wisen
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019
$16.00, 192 pages, ISBN: 978-0822966272

The twenty stories that make up Kate Wisel’s vivid, violent collection (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) focus kaleidoscopically on the lives of a group of four young women in Boston, Serena, Frankie, Raffa and Natalya. Raffa is Lebanese and Nat’s Ukrainian, already accustomed to lives of chaos, neither of them quite sure who their father is, back in the old country. They have contentious relationships with their single-parent mothers. 

But Serena, too, comes from a dysfunctional family – her father’s friend and righthand man Sharkey molests her as a little girl, for one thing – and Frankie’s from a broken working-class Boston home herself. They all get mixed up with men who don’t provide much in the way of stability. So yeah, this book is all about gritty girls fumbling along through their lives, improvising all the way. Sort of a downscale, not-very-glamorous Sex and the City, and without the humor.

The stories are arranged in groups of two and three, cycling from Serena to Frankie to Raffa and back again, with a section devoted to Nat as well. The stories are not ordered chronologically, but we get a sense of the girls’ development through time nevertheless, from schoolgirls to young adult women. Each in her own way is a survivor. 

While most of the stories involving Serena (eight altogether) involve her abusive relationship with Niko Vitalis – the last one, “I’m Exaggerating,” about Niko being busted by the cops – we first meet her in the story, “Frankie,” in which we meet her square boyfriend Andrew.  The story begins: “‘You like bad boys.’ That’s what Frankie says.” Serena tells us: “I don’t like his name. Andrew. So kindergarten name tag.” She describes “his nod as determined as a Hitler youth.” “He probably strolls into work in some you’re-gonna-love-the-way-you-look-I-guarantee-it fuckin’ suit,” she thinks, channeling the Men’s Wearhouse commercial. This aversion to a “safe” lover (although Andrew is cheating on his wife to be with her) gives insight not only into Serena, but her friends as well.

So is this fate? Does character equal destiny? The epigraph to the collection is from Kevin Barry: “But the way it happens sometimes is that pain becomes a feed for courage, a nutrient for it: when pain drips steadily, it can embolden.”  One turmoil after the other has the mithridatic effect of inoculating them from defeat.

The title of the collection, while symbolic of the danger in the lives of these women, may refer to a Natalya story, “English High,” when the girls are young. Nat has been kicked out of her house by her mother, Mona, lives in her car. She picks up an old flame, Victor, who took her virginity when she was fifteen and he was twenty and who is now homeless, and they drive around the Boston area together, with Serena and Frankie along for part of the ride.  Wisel describes the ghetto neighborhood of Dorchester, where Nat’s mother lives and where they pick up Victor, in gritty detail that leaps off the page:

Nat parks outside the Laundromat on Dot Ave. Boarded-up storefronts, aluminum doused in graffiti. Police tape whipping in the wind. A woman with a gummy crack-mouth hobbling past, singing. Outside Lucky Supermarket, an abandoned swivel chair wrapped in plastic, the coil hanging cut on a pay phone. A kid in a Sox cap and an oversized tee stands on pegs to zoom through the intersection, yanking back his handlebars to pop a wheelie.

A landscape straight out of A Clockwork Orange. Natalya later becomes involved with a mechanic named Seamus, who routinely hits her and abuses her verbally. The story “Stop It” ends with Seamus and Seamus’s sidekick Gerry raping her.

Raffa’s romantic history is likewise fraught. Her first boyfriend Benny dies from a drug overdose, his body discovered in a laundromat. She marries Mickey, who is abusive. After she divorces Mick, her mother gets her a job with Selim, an obnoxious Lebanese businessman (who may be her father?). “There is no way to explain how working for Selim makes me feel like there is a finger jabbing impatiently at my chest as if it is a button on a stuck elevator,” Nat observes. The story “When I Call, You Answer” ends with the Boston Marathon Massacre. Selim’s office is located on Newbury Street, where the bombing occurred. 

Frankie? Gets involved with a flimsy character named Villy who picks her up in the bar where she works. They have a quarrelsome on-again/off-again relationship that doesn’t end well. “I lost my Boston accent but regained it when we fought. Sometimes six fights a day. I have to admit, the fighting was exciting. It made me feel proactive, like I was using some kind of gym membership, rhetorical kickboxing.” 

Wisel shows us the characters going to school, working at jobs. Frankie and Serena both have babysitting jobs that involve sketchy characters. The dad of Frankie’s kid forces her to blow him.  The mother and father of Serena’s charge Sadie both threaten and take advantage of Serena. In “Good Job” we learn about all of Frankie’s dismal jobs – McDonald’s, Staples, grocery stores, the babysitting gig…

These girls are still alive and living in Boston! Wisel does not make moral judgments. These stories are only meant to the show us lives we often overlook. The writing is vivid: you really do see these characters, and sometimes it’s a very uncomfortable vision. 

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020.  A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is).  Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.