Driv­ing Hun­gry: A Mem­oir

320 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - by Layne Mosler

Blogs, the scrolls of our dig­i­tal age, are in­creas­ingly be­ing turned into books. The re­sult­ing parch­ment binds to­gether pre­vi­ously dig­i­tal-only col­lec­tions of life­style tips, hu­mor, or cul­tural crit­i­cism that some pub­lisher of ac­tual hard-copy vol­umes thinks will sell. Th­ese once-a-blog books of­ten turn on clever gim­micks. Layne Mosler’s blog Taxi Gourmet and the book it in­spired, Driv­ing Hun­gry: A Mem­oir, are dif­fer­ent: They work more from a con­cept than a gim­mick. Mosler gets into taxis in a hand­ful of the world’s more in­ter­est­ing ci­ties and asks the driv­ers for restau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions. Then she has them take her to those des­ti­na­tions. What re­sults is a kind of din­ing re­view in which the trans­port can be as in­ter­est­ing as the food. Both book and blog are as much about taxi driv­ers — the day-in and day-out prac­tice of their ser­vice and what put them be­hind the wheel — as they are about the culi­nary scene.

The book gets even more in­volved with its author’s in­ner ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s equal parts din­ing jour­nal, taxi ex­posé, trav­el­ogue, and jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery. It re­vis­its ex­pe­ri­ences from Taxi Gourmet — reg­u­lar fol­low­ers will rec­og­nize res­tau­rants and char­ac­ters — but also fills in the blanks be­tween them as we learn more about the blog­ger. Mosler is rest­less, foot­loose, and oc­ca­sion­ally trou­bled. She leaves jobs and trav­els im­pul­sively and is more of­ten hop­ing for a re­la­tion­ship than in one. Why she’s go­ing around to res­tau­rants in taxis, some­thing not as tellingly dis­cussed in the blog, is what she’s ask­ing her­self. There’s no en­com­pass­ing an­swer. But there are rev­e­la­tions along the way.

The story opens in Buenos Aires and goes off to New York and then to Ber­lin and then back to New York. The cast of char­ac­ters — and some of them re­ally are char­ac­ters — changes ev­ery time she gets into a dif­fer­ent cab or trav­els to a dif­fer­ent city. Talk­ing to taxi driv­ers is as good an in­tro­duc­tion to an un­fa­mil­iar city as strangers might find.

Need­ing a job in Amer­ica, Mosler learns to drive a cab. Her ex­pe­ri­ences with her fares and fel­low cab­bies, not to men­tion com­pany man­age­ment, are fas­ci­nat­ing. Most of pop cul­ture’s ob­ses­sion with cabs, in­clud­ing HBO’s Taxi­cab Con­fes­sions and the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Cash Cab, fo­cuses on the pas­sen­gers; Mosler gives equal time to the cab­bies. Some of them, she re­minds us, are women, and she gives a needed fem­i­nist per­spec­tive to an oc­cu­pa­tion mostly pur­sued by men. Be­tween the fares and the hacks, Mosler is able to draw a broad pic­ture of hu­man na­ture. Those she meets, no mat­ter how briefly, are at once vul­ner­a­ble, im­pa­tient, com­pas­sion­ate (or not), and pa­tron­iz­ing. Class dis­tinc­tions are finely drawn. Cer­tain hu­man be­hav­ior, not all ad­mirable, spans all in­comes.

Her ac­counts of din­ing, more suc­cess­ful on the blog, aren’t quite as good as one might hope, con­sid­er­ing Mosler’s fine way of de­scrib­ing the com­plex­i­ties of her life. She’s com­pe­tent at the re­port­ing part of food crit­i­cism, with a good way of en­gag­ing the senses when de­scrib­ing what she eats. But she’s not so good at ex­tolling the dishes, fre­quently fall­ing back on words like “ir­re­sistible” and “de­li­cious” to tell us she likes them. Her real tal­ent is her abil­ity to pull sym­bols from her ex­pe­ri­ence and to run with them. Learn­ing to tango in Ar­gentina be­comes more than just a way to get into the cul­ture; it’s a metaphor for learn­ing to nav­i­gate an un­fa­mil­iar city and re­lat­ing to strangers. The im­age of danc­ing as a craft com­bin­ing move­ment, rhythm, feel — all the things re­quired to be suc­cess­ful at any­thing in life — resur­faces through­out the book.

You can get a good feel for Mosler’s voice on­line, par­tic­u­larly when she’s writ­ing about how hard it was to har­vest a book-length man­u­script from her blog. Mem­oir writ­ing re­quires a cer­tain amount of nar­cis­sism, and Mosler can fall into it in a kind of woe-is-me way at times. You sense she’s more in­ter­ested in her nar­ra­tive than read­ers might be. What car­ries her work is her en­thu­si­asm and sense of ad­ven­ture. She’s not as cyn­i­cal as An­thony Bour­dain, the travel and food per­son­al­ity who Mosler says in­spired her ideas. But she doesn’t ex­plore for­eign places from in­side a bub­ble of cam­eras and priv­i­lege, either. She writes well enough to make read­ers jeal­ous of her travel ex­pe­ri­ences but not so well that the read­ing be­comes an ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self. In the end, the rea­son she seeks out res­tau­rants in taxis has to do with writ­ing. She has found a way to make it a ca­reer, apart from oc­ca­sional stints be­hind the wheel. And that’s a good thing. Those of us who may never get to Chiquilín in Ar­gentina will still be charmed by her de­scrip­tion of the tango that shares its name.

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