In “Driving in Cars with Homeless Men,” winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Kate Wisel weaves the stories of four young women as they experience desire, love, pain and abuse. Serena, Frankie, Raffa and Nat are friends in working-class Boston. We follow them as they move through crappy jobs and crappy men, all in desperate attempts to find something, anything to make them feel alive. The women in this book crave pleasure, but through desperation to find it, they run into pain over and over again.
Wisel’s writing possesses a scorching and powerful energy that makes the women’s stories feel almost dystopian. We are in Boston, yes, but a darker, hazier, dustier Boston than the one that resides on the edge of Massachusetts. The writing is detailed and dense, moving between points of view and moments in time the same way these women do as they wonder about their futures and reflect on their pasts.
We move between their childhoods, their present-day lives, and their futures—sometimes in the span of just a few pages. In doing so, Wisel makes it feel like everything for these women is present, like everything that has happened and will ever happen is alive and simmering inside them.
Wisel’s characters are captivating in their authenticity. Each has her own beautiful, tragic and unique way of seeing the world. First, we meet Serena, a college student, attracted to bad boys and disgusted with herself for liking a man she met in a place as boring as the park, a man she wishes she met “at the bar, holding cold, wet umbrellas, seven shots deep with the stall locked,” and a man she describes as “the kind of guy who would slowly then aggressively start singing ‘Bye, Bye Miss American Pie’ in unison with a bar full of strangers.”
We spend time with Frankie, then Raffa, then Nat. We see Frankie living with a man who yells at her and spends all her money on fancy cheese. We see Raffa deal with the death of her boyfriend after an overdose in a laundromat bathroom. We see Nat in a relationship that leaves her with a broken rib. The stories flow between each woman’s perspectives as they navigate the complexities of their experiences.
Wisel still manages to let moments of beauty shine through. We see the beauty of the women’s resilience, of their determination, and perhaps most of all, the beauty of their love for one another. They are the loves of each other’s lives, promising to move back in with one another someday after they all get divorced. “Some people remember things like their first kiss. I remember this,” Serena says of meeting Frankie. Lines like this give the book its true power.
Kate Wisel discusses “Driving in Cars With Homeless Men” at Women and Children First on October 10 at 7pm.
Driving in Cars With Homeless Men
By Kate Wisel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 185 pages