“I’m not sure which is worse, being broke or being broken.”
This thought comes from the mind of Damani, a mind constantly overworked just like her body is, a body she has trained to be strong and stronger, determined to fight and protect herself and the people she loves. Damani is the swole bisexual protagonist of Your Driver Is Waiting, a combustible debut novel from Priya Guns. She works long shifts driving for a ride share company called, well, RideShare. The company takes too large a cut, exploiting its gig workers, passengers similarly grinding them down into nothing, ignoring or overwriting their humanity.
We ride along with Damani in her car and in that overworked mind, consumed by her lack of financial security, by her grief over her recently deceased father who literally died at work, by her constant caretaking of her bereft and ailing mother. Damani drives through a city embroiled in political protests and performative outrage, often wondering how any of it does anything for her and her group of friends, everyone working harder and harder for less and less money, their one refuge from it all found in each other, in the shared space known as Doo Wop that serves as a cobbled together community center/dance hall/cafe/place to eat, to connect, to nourish, to release, and to plan movements.
Told in electric first-person prose, Your Driver Is Waiting is a rip-roaring story of family — blood and chosen — fighting to survive under capitalism, and saying fuck you to anyone who choose their own comfort and safety over the comfort and safety of others.
The vibe of Doo Wop is a stark contrast to the vibe at a fundraiser at Mademoiselle Ethiopia Café Damani attends after meeting a white girl named Jolene (by accidentally lightly hitting her with a car). Following the routes of Damani’s internal narration makes for an immersive and evocative experience: “The decor was judging me: fresh bouquets in vintage glasses that were the size of club-sized pickle jars scoffed at my shoes, the votive candles that floated in mid-air knew my bank balance.” This personification of Damani’s environment is just one of the many playful approaches Guns takes as they spin this story. The way the privileged progressives — who are never as progressive as they purport to be — talk and act around Damani drips with unironic performance, casual racism, and the general faux outrage wealthy white people engage in in such settings. But even more effective than some of the bleakly comedic dialogue (“My partner and I are opening up a vegan bakery. The space used to be a noodle shop, ran for about thirty years, so the kitchen is all set up, and we just got in the new curtains,” one fundraiser attendee muses with not a lick of self-awareness of their obvious gentrifying) are these crisp interior observations and feelings from Damani, such as the meaning-packed simple sentence: “A part of me sat on the ceiling watching people eat hardly any cheese off the cheese platter.”
Some readers may be tempted to label Your Driver Is Waiting as satire. A ride share app called RideShare, blanket protests against things Damani can’t even keep track of, the fact that that fancy fundraiser turns out to be for a new brand of spring water called The Fight that promises to donate ten cents from each bottle to a breakfast plan for local city kids…it does all sound heightened and on-the-nose. But it doesn’t read as satire, just like Succession or White Lotus aren’t really satire. The characters and their behaviors on those shows about the ultra-wealthy are completely believable, just like the events, emotional stakes, motivations, and world-building details of Your Driver Is Waiting are closer to reality than to dystopia. In being so in your face and heavy-handed, the novel is actually quite effective in its scathing critique of capitalism and white supremacy and of some of the mainstream, toothless efforts to combat it.
Also, just so we’re clear, this book is NOT Succession nor White Lotus. Its central characters would just be peripheral characters on those shows. Your Driver Is Waiting turns the powerful into the side characters, Jolene the only one who pops through, a character very unused to being an outsider suddenly finding herself one. She reacts like something trapped, threatened.
The book is so grounded in character, too, Damani a fascinating (and entertaining!) narrator who we not only get to know so intimately on an emotional and psychological level but also on a physical one. Following an incident where she was made to feel weak, she decides to get strong. Never before have descriptions of working out been so horny, gay, and lovely as this killer passage:
I loved it when my blood rushed. After six months of my routine I was addicted to feeling like a throbbing clit. Maybe it’s because I grew up seeing veiny men on the big screen kung fu-ing their way through doors, that I wanted bulging veins that had their own personality. But apparently that comes down to genetics or steroids, and I don’t have either. One time, more recently than I’m comfortable admitting, I drew veins around my muscles and admired them in the mirror.
The dialogue throughout brims with realism, humor, and a general familiarity that makes the friendships feel so lived-in and true to life. Take, for example, this runner between Damani and her friend Toni over the phone:
‘So it’s a date?’
‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been on a date in a while.’
‘You’ll be fine. Just don’t…I don’t know…Don’t—’
“Is this going to be encouraging?’
‘Just be yourself,’ said Toni.
‘I love you, that’s all it is. So what’s her background?’
‘Okay. That’s okay.’
‘For sure. But she’s not like Stephanie’s cousin, Courtney, white.’
‘She’s a rich white girl?’
‘Prosecco every Friday white.’
‘Is she actually?’
‘Walks like it.’
Damani falls quickly for Jolene, even as she has some walls up, her father’s death haunting not only her relationship with her mother and her work but also her intimacy issues. Guns delivers sentences that are alive and punchy. Of Jolene, Damani thinks: “She smelled of lavender and periwinkle. What did periwinkle smell like? Like her.” They fuck in a car and then against its hood, and it’s as hot as it sounds.
Still, it’s easy to see Damani and Jolene are on a collision course or, more specifically, that Jolene firmly has the steering wheel in her hands. Again, this isn’t subtle; it’s right there. But that starkness works and almost makes the suspense more nail-biting. It’s clear Jolene will betray Damani, but how? When it happens, it’s both cataclysmic and inevitable, bringing all the sewn-in tensions of the novel’s stories and themes to a big explosion that affects everyone all at once — except Jolene. Because of course.
But what strikes me the most about Jolene’s betrayal and its aftermath is the fact that Damani’s friendships remain unaffected. Jolene is the sole perpetrator of harm, and Damani’s friends are quick to support Damani, to make it clear they know none of this was her fault. Guns makes the character feel real and dimensional, not some cartoonishly evil white girl but something much scarier: a white girl who feels familiar, her casual racism spoken in a cadence that’s easy to recognize for anyone who has ever been one of the few QTPOC in a mainstream, predominantly white queer space. Sometimes, it isn’t even spoken. But it’s felt. Jolene is scarier than a villain, because she has no idea she is one.
Your Driver Is Waiting gives gas to Damani’s rage. Her anger is not only sympathetic in the story but celebrated. She has so much to be angry about. And yet this is no Angry Brown Woman trope. Damani is so aware of how she has to move through the world to survive, how she has to smile for passengers, grind her teeth instead of saying what she feels. When she does act on her anger, it satiates. It’s cathartic. Reading the book (which I did in two sittings that went by lightning fast), I found myself thinking of Stef Rubino’s Catapult essay “Learning the Limits of Nonviolence.” Your Driver Is Waiting has a similar ethos baked into it (“I wasn’t proud of it, but violence is sometimes the answer,” Damani muses after hitting a woman who stole $100 from her). Nuanced in its character development and bold in its plotting, Your Driver Is Waiting possesses a scintillating alchemy. It’s an uppercut to the chin of a novel and an instantly memorable debut.