Driving Hungry: A Memoir
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.