Long Shift by Richard Formentini

Long Shift by Richard Formentini is an entertaining collection of character sketches based on the comings and goings of a San Francisco cab driver. It’s a bag of potato chips for the mind. Each sketch is just a single paragraph, rapidly creating a lively picture of some soul who briefly intersects with the narrator. The titles read like a cabbie’s call sheet (“Union and Laguna”, “Pier 39”, etc.). [Review continues after the jump]

Formentini’s gift for rapid character development is worth studying by authors of fiction. If you only have one paragraph to tell a story, you need to get on with it quickly and make every sentence count. Good observation of detail paints a picture of each passenger with a minimum number of words. The author has worked as a film scriptwriter, and there is a sense of rapid cutting in this novel. Humor is an important part of the mix, and I often laughed out loud at the situations the driver finds himself in. The author is good at one-liners, which he drops early and often.

The idea that who we are depends on the context we are in is an unstated theme of the book. Taking the job as a cabbie had the effect of wiping the slate clean for the narrator (“No one knew who I was. No expectations. No status. No reason to shave. I loved it from the first minute.”). An interesting technical aspect of the book is the way we gradually get a picture of the cabbie himself, whose name and age we never learn. The book is written in the first-person, but there is little exposition about the narrator. Details about him emerge slowly in pointillistic fashion. Some things leak out in conversations with passengers, but since he lies freely in order to avoid some topics, it’s hard to be sure of what is fact and what is fiction. Maintaining a blank screen for his riders’ projections is useful to him. We can be fairly sure that before driving a cab he had been working as a middle-manager for a delivery company. Prior to that he was an academic with a degree in Russian literature, which explains the fake Russian accent that he sometimes puts on in order to avoid conversation with passengers. He’s gay, but often allows customers to assume he is straight.

He’s unflappable, non-judgemental, and tactful, all essential skills for a cab driver. We learn early on that putting up with drunks is a main part of his job. Fortunately, the driver is “a fluent speaker of drunk.” He comes across as a guy you would probably enjoy having a glass of whiskey with.

Things I learned by reading this book:

  • The best answer for “Why are you going this way?” is “Because it’s in this direction.”
  • Drunk yuppies make for a long ride.
  • Passengers love it when their driver makes illegal turns.

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