DRIVING IN CARS WITH HOMELESS MEN, Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner Kate Wisel’s debut story collection, reviewed by Noreen Hernandez

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is, on one level, author Kate Wisel’s homage to the friendship of women. It also looks at our preconceived ideas of youth, women, poverty, and choice. Serena, Frankie, Natalya, and Raffa live in working-class Boston. They navigate through the pain in their lives by smoking, drinking, and driving around in old, fast cars with the wrong boys. They learn soon enough these boys only grow up to become the wrong men. Although Wisel’s stories are filled with tragedy, none of these characters are victims. I laughed out loud more than once and found myself cheering them on. These are some of the most alive fictitious characters I’ve met in a long time.

The reason the characters jump off the page is Wisel’s language. Her prose pulsates with the stark rhythm of muscular poetry. She introduces us to the main characters as they hang out in Mozart Park after midnight “on the sidelines in our long-ass sleep tees, watching the boys make free throws in the dark. We were fourteen. We had stub butts in our pockets and no curfews.” Within these few lines the reader learns about the trajectory these girls are on. They will spend their lives in the dark watching someone else play the game. They are poor, and for whatever reason, too young to be this free. Yet, they aren’t untethered because they have each other.

This bond is important because it supplies the girls with the strength it will take to face their position in life. Wisel describes how poverty creates a vulnerability more complicated than making the wrong choice, because it erases any hope for the possibility of choice. We’ve been taught that an education is the foundational first step to climbing out of poverty, Wisel teaches us a different lesson as Natalya sits with her guidance counselor:

He wore sneakers with khakis. He liked to mispronounce my name. He called me Natalie. He said, “Natalie, this could be your last chance” … He asked if I knew my grades before this year combined with my SAT score were good enough to get into BU. I asked if he wanted to pay for it. He tipped his head back, cradling it with his palms, the wings of his elbows suggesting the expectation for a blowjob.

It doesn’t matter that Natalya is talented and smart because she is unable to picture herself in college. The educational system taught her how to move toward college, but never provided her with the vocabulary to get into college. She doesn’t know how to ask for help from the inept guidance counselor, so she ends up dropping out. We are left to question, why? Would he have been more helpful if tuition wasn’t an issue? Why didn’t he discuss scholarships, grants, loans, etc. with her? What made him believe Natalya wasn’t worth the trouble?

Wisel’s mastery with the nuances and rhythms of language allow the horizons of her stories to open up so I could ask these questions. She drops subtle hints that the problem is a prejudice towards the poor within our educational system. At one point in the book a character reminisces about living comfortably in an apartment on government assistance before the university took it over for dorms. The event is related without bitterness, almost matter-of-factly, she writes in a voice that expects disruption, that expects to be pushed aside. A neighborhood building looks like a prison but is recognized as the high school only because “there was a smoker’s bench, where kids with blue hair and pale skin huddled together, their jeans torn at the crotch.” It’s interesting that Wisel describes them as ‘smokers,’ not students. They’ve given up even before Natalya did. Hope, and even the expectation of hope, is missing. Instead, they are marking time until they drop out.

At first, I expected to read a heroic how-to on overcoming the odds in a tough world. Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is more of a spiritual journey for the reader than the main characters. Wisel lets Serena, Frankie, Natalya, and Raffa get right up in our faces and speak for themselves. By writing in an honest voice, we begin to understand from Wisel the humanity (and inhumanity) that pervades their everyday lives. Their success is measured on how they get through the day while trying to stay true to themselves. Wisel successfully tells the story of a world where all the safety net systems that women have historically depended on: parents, marriage, and education have abandoned these women. Society doesn’t provide moral development for Serena, Frankie, Natalya, and Raffa, because society pushes them aside. In the last story Raffa runs after a bike thief, and coincidentally sees her ex-husband. She ignores her ex’s gaze and pushes herself to catch the thief. She wants justice, because after all “[h]e stole a bike.” Just as she catches up with him Raffa thinks to herself while holding him around the waist: “I just want him to look at me.” Then she lets him go. She hopes that forcing justice would finally make her visible yet learns to ignore her need to meet the gaze of an ex.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is a bildungsroman of society’s institutions. Wisel’s succinct writing reflects how these institutions lack the moral development to successfully serve these women. Instead, together they form a stronger bond to support each other.

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, by Kate Wisel. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2019. 192 pages. $23.00, hardcover.

Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept. 

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