Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Taxi Driver - Richard Elman


Yet another movie tie-in and aren't I the lucky one?
I do often wonder how some books end up in a charity shop on the East coast of Devon? How many other people have thumbed through its pages over the years? Where else in the world has it been? Whose bookshelves and in whose home has it stood? I'll never know but you can rest assured that where ever it's been, it's now landed into some safe and very welcoming hands and has found itself a good home where it shall be read and properly appreciated. See, I'm actually one of those people who believe books are meant to be read and not left on some shelf gathering dust, so I shall at some point pass this book on and send it once again out into the world. Wave it goodbye and bid it good luck in its further travels.
In the meantime, whilst it's in my possession let’s see if this particular book - Taxi Driver by Richard Elman - is any good.

Everyone knows the film Taxi Driver by now. Martin Scorsese? Robert DeNiro? Jodie Foster? Lonely and unstable taxi driver in New York tries to assassinate Senator, fails, so sets out to save teenage prostitute? Carnage ensues?
If you've never heard of it or never even watched it then you should be ashamed. I mean, what have you been doing all these years?

So, the film is a classic - iconic, even - but what's the book like? Well, like the film it's all narrated in the first person by cabbie Travis Bickle but what's immediately striking is that it's written phonetically. This is the voice of an uneducated man - troubled, confused in his thinking, paranoid, sad but strangely poetic - writing down his thoughts and speaking his mind without fore or afterthought:
'I was standing in front of the Avon Cinema to see Angel Pussy (for the fifth, or possibly sixth time) when this person with big yellow cole slaws on his lips starts telling me things.'
The voice is how you might imagine a taxi driver in New York would sound like: single-minded, unsubtle and to the point. It's interesting to think that Irvine Welsh would be lauded for writing phonetically in the Scots accent for Trainspotting when this same device was obviously being used years earlier by writer Richard Elman but for New York.

There's a remark that Travis Bickle uses throughout the book which strangely is not used in the film and that's "Words to that effect". Also quite strangely, one of the most famous scenes in the film where Travis Bickle is talking to himself in the mirror ("You talkin' to me? Well, then who the hell else are you talkin'? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talkin' to?") doesn't feature in the book. The book is, however, based on the screenplay so quite possibly the mirror scene was ad libbed or simply just a late edition to the filming?

There's an amusing part in the book where Travis picks up a passenger one night who asks him to stop outside an apartment block and to look up at a window where a woman can be seen. It's the passenger's wife and he says he's going to kill her with a .44 magnum. The book relays Travis's thoughts whilst waiting at the kerb with this passenger in the back: 'Christ I'm thinking faggot faggot faggot who's got the faggot. My first thoughts my very first are definitely faggot here... I turned around to look at him. He was real sick-looking, white with big hollow eyes, crazy man.'
In the film, of course, this part was played by Scorsese himself so is the description of the character a dig at Scorsese or a joke written at Scorsese's expense?

There are two quotes at the start of the book, one from American poet Herbert Krohn and another from the writer Thomas Wolfe, taken from God's Lonely Man: 'The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.' So this let's us know that this was the inspiration behind one of Travis's own inner dialogues and one of his most famous of lines: 'Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.'
It's all interesting stuff.

Apart from these points that I've highlighted, the book is pretty much faithful to the film which of course, is no bad thing. It's a classic. And having just Googled 'taxi driver' I see that the film has actually been considered 'culturally, historically or aesthetically' significant by the US Library of Congress and has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not that accolades such as this are actually important but it just proves the high status of the film and by association the high status of this book.

John Serpico

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