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Photograph: Jessica Lin

Book review: Carnival by Rawi Hage

Decadence and desperation spray across the pages of Hage's novel like buckshot, as the driver of a taxicab conveys his misfit fares around the city.


By Rawi Hage. Norton, $27.

In the vein of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, Rawi Hage’s Carnival follows a wandering cabdriver as he conveys misfit fares through an undisclosed North American city. Fly—as he calls himself—was born into a sideshow, trained to divine the weight and life expectancy of circusgoers based on the hollowness of their cheeks and the heaviness of their footfalls. A similarly empirical approach informs the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner’s take on this metropolis and its inhabitants, giving his prose an occasion to shine.

As with the aforementioned filmic projects, readers peek into a seedy world from a safe distance. Fly shares his cab with drug dealers and users, demanding johns, sleeping clowns and oddballs clinging to stuffed animals won at the annual carnival. The city Hage evokes contains the litter and wildness of the midway, where the fantastical and brutal are showcased in nearly every scene. Despite shattered innocence and rampant thievery, however, it is also a realm where prostitutes slash their prices out of charity.

All of which is delivered in Hage’s festive, hard-boiled style. The novel’s short scenes of decadence and desperation spray across the pages like buckshot—loud and scattered, but still penetrating. Hage’s terse descriptions and caterwauling grandiloquence drive these truncated adventures well enough to make readers forget that the book lacks a focused plotline. Fly’s erudition and introspection do not conform with the film and TV stereotypes of taxi drivers, but in a novel so well written—in which it doesn’t seem contrived that masturbation sequences substitute for the usual chapter breaks—one could expect as much.

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