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Vol 3, No 15
30 April 2001
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Iva Pekarkova's Gimme the Money Driven
Iva Pekárková's Gimme the Money
Serpent's Tail, 2000
ISBN 1852426586

Madelaine Hron

Driven. This is the only way to describe Iva Pekárková's Gimme the Money (Dej mi ty prachy, 1996), impeccably translated from Czech into New York slang by the author herself and her husband Raymond Johnston. Fresh, gutsy, hilarious, the novel is one terrific (and terrifying) joy-ride through New York, propelled by a Czech taxi driver—a woman taxi driver at that.

The fast-paced plot rivets the reader's attention completely; there is simply no way to put the book down once one has begun this rollicking roller-coaster ride. Intrigue, passion, delicious detail, crazy characters—this novel has something for everyone. It is a novel of epic proportions, reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, yet, in its anecdotes it also zooms in close-up to capture intimate intricacies of City life in sharp shots paralleling Jim Jarmusch's film Night on Earth.

Buckle your seat belt

Forget the glassy ordinariness of cab-rides you have experienced in the past! And, with Gimme the Money, get into the driver's seat to discover first-hand that every pick-up is "speckled with little shards of adventures" (p 114). As Gin, our heroine, explains, "Every real taxi story is like a short story mystery novel with the first and the last few pages torn off" (p 118).

The plot follows the exploits of Jindřiška, a somewhat naive and trusting Czech immigrant, who becomes wise to the ways of the world in her encounters with foreboding New York and its outrageous inhabitants. In the end, she becomes Gin, a spirit as tough as the City itself.

Mesmerized, the reader observes this metamorphosis unfold through a myriad of adventures, as Gin deftly maneuvers her way (and will) with slippery taxi drivers, punk clients, exasperating lovers and even psychotic killers. Ultimately, Gin becomes the sum total all of these multi-faceted tones, which make up the throbbing pulse of the City, so that "submerged into the City, (like it was a whirling foam)... every cell of your body got permeated by its rhythm, its plasma circled in your veins, and therefore you became, just like everyone else, a building block, a cell, a molecule in that humongous, colorful mosaic..." (p 34).

Traces of a Czech past

Although her thick Slavic accent learns to meld with the groove of Ha-a-lem, in the throes of passion, it still whispers solo in Czech; and though her body is marked by the brutality of the streets, it still preserves that old appendectomy scar lousily sewn up in Czechoslovakia—in all, despite her hard-knock street education, Gin's original spirit remains undaunted. Indeed, the novel is a Bildungsroman, but it is a cool, fresh, hip, happenin' version of the genre. In fact, the book transcends, no, defies, any and all generic categorization, because, unlike the ordinary novel, it so clearly arises from real life.

Pekárková belongs to that "brotherhood of those who DARED" (p 19), as she describes it in her book. She herself, upon leaving Czechoslovakia, worked as one of the few female taxi drivers in New York. Her descriptions are those of a veteran:

When night drivers arrive home at night and fall into bed, the film of everything they'd seen on their shift, of everything they drove past, gets projected onto their eyelids… With the conviction that THEY are not drivers of taxicabs. They are actors. And writers. And screenwriters. And visual artists…On the spool thread of Gin's head, a whole movie sequence was being filmed, about 200 miles a day, and every morning as she was falling asleep, the dailies were getting projected in her head, projected, rewound and fast-forwarded... Days and nights got fused into a single yellowish tint, the reel of the film got melted together, and you couldn't see though it—except in multiple exposure, and each time she went to sleep to the cooing of pigeons, the City reverberated in her head like a single clear, crisp tone of a golden gong (pp 50-51, 54-55).

In Gimme the Money, Pekárková, the former cab driver, became the Czech Republic's hottest new writer, screenwriter and visual artist as she transformed these melting multiple exposures and this cacophonous metropolis into sharp crystal-clear images with penetrating prose.

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Pekárková's attention to detail is painstakingly meticulous. By her deft pen, even the tiniest or most banal object is painted in a surprising new light, such as "the weather-worn, wet Yellow Cab [which] fluttered around glistening streets like an insomniac butterfly" (p 29) or a crack in the sidewalk, "where the asphalt is caving in and crumbling apart or where it's bubbling up into space like tiny, tit-shaped volcanoes" (p 103). The language is so smooth, such a subtle mixture of perfect American idiom and rhythmic Uptown slang, that one suspects this is not the translation—that the Czech version is the copy and this the original.

A manic world

In all, by virtue of Pekárková's covert knowledge and her blatant writing talent, the reader becomes completely, if not obsessively, absorbed into the manic underground world of taxi drivers, with its subterfuges, (such as illicit "dummy cars"), its oily garage romances (bosses oozing charm from greasy pores), its accidents and mechanical breakdowns (see the chapter "The Tree"), and above all its brazen, heroic survival on the road (where, ultimately, one must kill or be killed).

However, it is not merely Pekárková's savvy expertise on the road that makes this journey passionate; rather it is her innate knowledge of people and relationships. Pekárková's character casting is most certainly the acme of the book. In her careful modulation of caricature sketches, she creates believable, yet incredible characters.

We come to love Gin's "chéri" (now husband) Talibe, with his African inedibles, debile ideas (such as wanting Gin to get married for a second time to his "cousin" Ougadougou) and indelibly magnificent sexual delights. However, we also love Gloria, Gin's Cuban roommate, the artiste, who manages to aesthetically plaster exactly 365 immaculate, immolated cockroaches on canvas, as well as all the grease-monkeys, illegals and hobos that make up Pekárková's vast array of characters.

Pekárková's prose also comments critically on contemporary issues, such as immigration and assimilation, multiculturalism and racism, sex and gender, performance and drag or art and trash. Most importantly, our heroine shows us how to maintain one's vital energy and wonder in the rough, drab modern world—unmitigated zest for life being perhaps the ultimate rebellion in the face of today's strident, monotonous, capitalist parroting of "Gimme the money." In sum, Iva Pekárková's Gimme the Money is a definite must for all those who want to experience a thrilling, breath-taking read.

Madelaine Hron, 30 April 2001

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