About 20 years ago Jack Clark fashioned a noir novel out of a string of vignettes drawn from his night job as a Chicago cabbie. Having failed to find a publisher for it, he tried to get it serialized in the Reader. When the Reader took a pass, Clark self-published 500 copies under the title Relita's Angel and began distributing them from his taxi. For the next year or so, he carried a stack of the paperbacks in his cab, unloading them at $5 each—$3.14 more than his printing cost—on any passenger willing to say what the hell.
Cruising for fares one night in 1996, Clark happened to pick up Robert Preskill, a Chicago lawyer just beginning to try his hand as an agent. Preskill took an instant liking to Clark's tale of two killers—one preying on cabbies, the other on teenage prostitutes—and wanted to know what else he'd written. Clark would later land with the legendary Sterling Lord, who's represented everybody from Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey to Jan and Stan Berenstain of Berenstain Bears fame. ("He never sold anything of mine, but I loved talking to him.") But since he had no agent at the time, he gave Preskill the go-ahead to see what he could do. Preskill promptly hatched deals for Relita's Angel and a couple other Clark manuscripts.
Only two of those deals actually stuck. On the Home Front, Clark's as-told-to collection of his mother's stories about "everyday American life from Prohibition through WWII," was published by Plume in 2002, and a detective novel, Westerfield's Chain, came out the same year from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. But negotiations with Warner Books for an e-book edition of Relita's Angel ultimately didn't work out.
In 2009, after giving up on an attempt to turn it into a screenplay, Clark himself sold Relita's Angel to Hard Case Crime, a publishing house launched by writer and former Internet entrepreneur Charles Ardai. Clark's self-funded edition had been an impediment for other publishers, who wanted virgin material. But Hard Case Crime specializes in reissues of vintage pulp crime classics—its list of titles includes potboilers by Mickey Spillane, Erle Stanley Gardner, Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, and "A.C. Doyle"—as well as the publication of more recent work in the genre. The Hard Case version of Clark's book was published last month as Nobody's Angel, with steamy retro-noir cover art by Ron Lesser.
So far, Clark says, the reception has been gratifying. Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, for example, called Nobody's Angel "a gem" and wrote, "For what it is, it's just about perfect. I won't urge would-be novelists to forsake their writing classes and become hackers, but they would do well to read Clark's story, which doesn't contain a wasted word or a false note."
Clark started writing for the Reader in 1975 and served a brief stint on the staff, during which he developed an aversion to deadlines. Over the years he's continued to contribute finely crafted pieces of nonfiction, including many of his mother's tales, published here as "West Side Stories." Born and raised in the Austin neighborhood as one of seven siblings, Clark is a high school dropout who's wanted to be a writer since he was 16 and his dad handed him a copy of Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm. His formal training is limited to the only college course he ever took—a "story-and-journalism" class at Columbia, chosen, he says, because all the fiction courses were full.
He turned out to be a natural, but he's never been able to make a living at writing. To put food on the table Clark has labored as a janitor, furniture mover, long-haul truck driver, and—for more than 30 years—a cabbie. Now 60, he's still driving two or three shifts a week, hitting the streets in an American United car owned by someone else.
Like his Nobody's Angel protagonist, Eddie Miles, Clark drives at night by choice. The passengers are friendlier and more interesting then, he says. And since the city started mandating bullet-resistant shields or security cameras in taxis, it's less risky than it used to be.
The taxis in Nobody's Angel don't have bullet-proof shields. Set in the early 1990s, the book is an eye-opening immersion in a cabbie subculture built around a daily series of judgment calls and crapshoots aimed at avoiding the passenger who'll stiff or kill you. Written in prose that goes down easy as a cold beer, it offers locals the same delight-in-recognition we get from a good locally shot film, immortalizing the streets we walk and the neighborhoods we hang out in. And because it's written from a professional driver's first-person perspective, it has a unique precision. Clark supplies portraits of North Avenue before the Home Depot supplanted the whores, west Madison when it was still a burned out moonscape, and the cabbies' near-north bread-and-butter circuit. "I headed back south, to the streets I cruised night after night after night," Eddie tells us. "From Wrigley Field down to the Loop, the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park, Old Town and River North—never straying too far from the lake—following Clark Street and Halsted, Lincoln and Wells."
Clark says everything in Nobody's Angel was inspired by real life—though not necessarily his own. Despite the obvious parallels, he insists that his middle-aged, hack-driving protagonist isn't autobiographical. The source for Eddie, he says, was something another driver told him years ago—a little piece of shithouse existentialism that stuck. "He said, 'The great thing about the cab business is that it's always there, night and day,'" Clark recalls. "'So if you don't have anything else in your life, you have that.' A lot of editors said to me, 'You've got to get this guy out of the cab.' But I wanted that guy who doesn't have anything else."
From the driver's seat of his cab, Eddie negotiates a city splintered by race and class and rapidly losing its economic underpinnings. Nobody's Angel has the wry humor and engaging characters typical of the best of the hard-boiled genre, but Clark's portrait of Chicago in the 1990s, with its vanishing factories and jobs, its lethal public housing projects, its teenage hookers climbing into vans on North Avenue, is what gives it legs. Sure there are a couple murderers on the loose, but the larger violence is coming from systemic forces wreaking havoc in a place that, maybe, used to be better. "Chicago's nice if you've got money and you're up there on the lakefront," Clark says. "But it's such a rough city if you're poor. So many of these people have no chance. And one guy out there in the middle of nowhere can do nothing. Eddie, he shrugs and goes on."