Reviewed by Sarah Sorensen
Kate Wisel’s prize-winning collection of interrelated short stories, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, catalogues the daily lives of four young women living in Boston: Serena, Raffa, Frankie, and Natalya. Wisel writes about domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, and the inability to connect to others in ways that maintain healthy boundaries; these women are guarded and tough.
Wisel separates the book into sections based on the characters, with most of the stories in each section told from that character’s first person perspective. A notable exception is “Hoops,” which is the only story in “Us,” and is told in the first person plural. It is a brief sketch of the women as unsupervised teenagers, killing time, getting into trouble. The girls describe themselves, saying “[w]e wore hoodies and lip rings, gold hoops that turned our ear lobes green. Neon safety vests with no bras. Our pupils pinpointed and bloodshot but shining with purple shadow.”
Reading the book from beginning to end may help in establishing the course of the characters’ lives, but the stories have also been designed to stand alone and many appeared separately in literary magazines.
Although the four friends are each given a voice, the similarity of their ages and experiences often leads to indistinguishable narrators. In each story the voice seems clear, yet all four women rely heavily on metaphors, similes, and anthropomorphism. In “Hoops” the women state, “[w]inter was a wall we couldn’t see beyond till the garage door moaned when Fetus pulled it, the sky above the triple-deckers dripping colors like splat fruit. If you touched us, we shivered. Our skin like tangerines, on the cusp of bursting” (p. 4). In “Frankie,” Serena describes her dinner date with Andrew by noting, “[b]y the time he got the check I was almost lying down corpse-like in the booth. I stared at him sleepily, exaggerating my blink like a housecat” (p. 11). In “Stage Four,” Frankie describes bartending waitresses as “[g]irls who leaned in and winked at their regulars like plastered ads on billboards” (p.38). In “When I Call, You Answer,” Raffa comments on the street sounds: “[n]oises from the street sound as unpredictably as a jazz record” (p. 75). In “Stop It,” Natalya describes a mark on another character’s chest: “[t]he burn was the size of a beer can, smooth and pink as bubble gum” (p. 114). Throughout the book, there is a clear emphasis on associating the characters and their surroundings with other things, as though by misdirection the speaker might reimagine the bleakness as something more interesting. The repeated poetic language lends consistency and is apt in a way, as the women are often shown as having interdependent identities. However, this stylistic choice definitely stands out on the page as writerly. Employing it in each story feels like overuse.
As youths without stable home environments, the friends experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex. In young adulthood, they struggle commiting to school, finding and keeping meaningful work, and forming healthy relationships. Essentially, the characters often struggle with a lack of self-esteem that leads to dangerous choices. Serena’s stories often include domestic violence. She has the opportunity to be self-reliant and does not need a partner for financial support. Serena chooses to stay with her abusive partners for emotional reasons. In “Trouble,” Serena resets her nose with a pencil after her boyfriend Niko breaks it. The story title is also the name of the new puppy that Niko gives to her as an apology for having beaten her once again. She does not express much affection in general, but the puppy brings out emotions that Serena is unprepared to handle. She states,
“I loved Trouble so much that I kind of wanted to hurt him. I ran my fingers down the tender muscles of his underside and bit longingly at the aching inside of my cheek. Trouble stared back like he was so miserably disappointed in me, to the core, though he’d only known me a month” (p. 136).
For Serena, love is violence. She also feels inadequate to the task of caring for him. The dog routinely pees on the floor and Serena allows him to play too roughly with the neighbor’s dog. She loves him, but without fully taking on the responsibilities of love, which includes caretaking and discipline. Serena does not even offer herself these basic aspects of love. In “Sadie Escobar,” Serena argues with a different partner, Jimmy. She tells him to hit her, but he won’t. Jimmy is hurt by Serena’s request. He tells her, “You’re not going to get that here” (p. 148). Serena is so uncomfortable that she ultimately leaves him.
In “Stage Four,” Frankie meets her boyfriend Villy while she is waiting tables in the Bukowski Tavern. After ordering a drink from Frankie, Villy asks her to leave with him. Frankie ditches her shift, and the two take a cab to a restaurant that where patrons are dressed in formal attire and a cellist plays in the corner. Frankie is self-conscious about her work clothes, yet impressed by Villy and his choice of restaurant.
When they start dating, it is clear that Villy is in control of Frankie. During one of their dates, Frankie says,
“[t]he drinks between us were twirling pink and bubbling as he stared at me for melodramatic pauses like a psychologist. I wanted to mimic his pose, challenge his own notion of himself back, but under his gaze I felt like a broken toll–anything could pass through me. Satisfied with my blankness, he’d lurch forward to take my hands” (p. 41).
When Frankie is sober, she starts to notice Villy’s flaws. He is unemployed, but not looking for work. Frankie is fired from the tavern because Villy starts showing up at her job and monitoring her all night. He tries to constantly instruct her about how to be “cultured,” demeaning her intelligence. They fight nearly every day. When Frankie’s mother dies of cancer, the two finally stop seeing one another. Frankie says,
“Villy didn’t care where we were going, but I did. I led the sleepiest way as if we were crossing a time zone. Some movie where the plane flies over the ocean. The cabin is dark. Passengers’ heads are slumped on strangers’ shoulders, and it’s impossible to tell if that is peace or the moment before the crash” (p. 50).
Frankie finally decides to take control of her life’s direction, but she is filled with uncertainty.
In “English High,” Natalya’s need for emotional distance is well-articulated in a rare third person narration. Natalya “[d]ecides that the best love is something that can ruin you like permanent eye damage, spots of darkness in everything you see. And if love is a person, she’d gun them down in the street” (p. 108). Notice that the “best love” is equated with violence, something to be avoided. Natalya perceives authentic intimacy as too risky.
Raffa responds to emotional hurt with violence. In “Run for Your Life,” she says,
“[a]fter he tried to divorce me, I broke into his Cape house and did heroin for the first and last time. I threw my lighter at his second-floor window till he let me in. I went to the Gallows on a Wednesday. I took seven shots of Maker’s. I texted him I was pregnant. When he didn’t believe me, I threatened to murder him. It only led to us having sex for the last time. I hacked into his email, showed up to his friend’s bachelor party, and chased him down the street after he told me to never, ever call him again. I did call him again, after he changed his number.” (p. 173).
This is from the last page of the book. It showcases the dysfunctions of Raffa’s attempts to connect to her husband, but it could be a description of any of the women struggling in their relationships with men.
In “Stop it,” Natalya is in a relationship with Seamus, yet she is never alone with him. Instead, Seamus’s friend Gerry is constantly present. Natalya asks Seamus to take her to the movies without Gerry, but Seamus only makes excuses. Gerry is even there when Seamus and Natalya have sex. Seamus brags to friends that his best sexual experience was with Natalya while she was passed out, an act that Natalya does not seem to register as rape or even objectification. The degradation reaches a crescendo when Natalya assumes that after Seamus finishes having sex with her, Gerry will have sex with her next, and she simply accepts it. As Gerry approaches, she waits for him to begin, despite her lack of sexual interest in him. Then Gerry brings his foot down on her chest, smashing her ribs, a detail that leads back to the opening scene of the story in which Natalya describes her broken ribs. She is in the car with Seamus, their relationship seemingly unaltered by the abuse. Just as the story loops back, so does Natalya. The cycle of violence does not end.
The stories rarely exceed ten pages, making them feel like vignettes, glimpses into a particular day or situation. Wisel moves through time in nonlinear patterns. She does not soften the narratives to include redemption or portray these women as heroes who survive toxic relationships; they are a part of the toxic interactions. This complexity shows Wisel’s talent for writing realistic characters who will not be tamed, characters whose decisions and behaviors do not change with experience. Her ability to deftly examine these women makes for a satisfying read. The title does not specify who is driving, the women or the men. Instead, the characters are on a journey with no clear direction, no certainty of who is navigating. Wisel’s stories do not pretend to know the way, instead they describe the journey.
Sarah Sorensen has been published over forty times in numerous small presses since 2009. Her most recent work was featured in 5×5 and Timber Journal. She has work forthcoming from Flock. Sarah has her M.A. in English from Central Michigan University and is currently pursuing her Master of Library and Information Sciences at Wayne State University. She would like to work as a public librarian during the day and write novels by night.