Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Nobody’s Angel by Jack Clark

Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel, the latest release from the Hard Case Crime imprint, is the definition of a cult novel.
Clark, a Chicago cab driver, wrote and self-published the novel. Until its publication by Hard Case Crime last month, the only way a reader could get one of the 500 copies available was to take a ride in Clark’s cab.

But beyond the novelty of its publication, Nobody’s Angel is an endlessly fascinating look inside the world of a cab driver. While technically a crime novel, with two crimes driving the plot forward, the bulk of the novel is taken up with an episodic series of cab rides, each a potential mini-adventure. Eddie Miles, an old school hack who serves as the novel’s narrator, knows Chicago’s history and geography intimately and has traced the trajectory of the city’s decline into violent crime.

Someone is killing cabbies, and as the crimes go unsolved, the city’s drivers become increasingly paranoid, making more and more narrowly selective decisions about the fares they pick up, mainly on a racial basis. That’s not to say the cabbies weren’t “selective” already: many don’t pick up African American fares at all, and most won’t drive to either the west or south sides of Chicago. Eddie describes Cabrini-Green as a kind of war zone that any smart hack avoids at all costs, with snipers ready to take shots at cabs just for the hell of it. In fact, Clark is unflinching when dealing with the racial politics of cab drivers, and that approach marks some of the novel’s most uncomfortable moments.

An air of nostalgia for a lost Chicago runs through the novel, and that can lead one to wonder what exactly Clark blames for that loss. City planning, housing projects, and gentrification definitely come under fire. In one extended scene, Eddie gives an old man a nostalgic ride back to his old neighborhood, one which was virtually destroyed and never rebuilt in the riots of the late 60s. Eddie is afraid and constantly stresses that no other cabbie would take such a fare, but his fears are never realized in this particular trip. At other points, Eddie tells stories of buildings, attractions, and routes that once existed but have now changed, all with the feeling that something essential in the city has been irrevocably lost.

A second crime plot involves a killer who is violently slashing prostitutes, and Eddie takes it on himself to do his own investigation. However, this and the cabbie killer plot get little attention until the final fourth of the novel or so, as the rest provides a vivid picture of the ups and downs of the cabbie’s daily life. For the most part, the crimes serve as MacGuffins that intensify the cabbies’ behavior and highlight relationships among the cabbies and between the drivers and the police.

Clark has a sharp, minimalist style that makes this a quick read. In addition, each chapter is headed with a different rule from the city’s public codes for cab drivers, most of which stand in ironic contrast to the cabbies’ actual behavior.

Personally, I have only a limited knowledge of Chicago, but I can imagine a reader with a real affection for or interest in the city loving this novel. I was fascinated enough with the detailed narratives of individual fares that permeate the novel, and I feel like I walk away from it with new information that helps explain why, sometimes, I have difficulty getting a cab.

At the very least, I learned that I might tip higher than most fares.

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