“Test Drive” is a wet and wild ride through future Pittsburgh

by Jody DiPerna

Pittsburgher Patrick McGinty has written a wholly original novel that stings of reality 

It’s a few years down the road in the city of bridges as Pegs, a mechanic, spends all of her waking hours working for a tech company as a driver of driverless cars. A Pittsburgh girl born and raised, she might lament the state of the world, if she weren’t so damned busy working extra shifts and fixing things.

Pressed to her absolute financial limit without a moment for reflection, Pegs is a capable stand-in for contemporary readers, many of whom race through the gig-economy from one job to the next.

Test driving is a strange job:  Pegs doesn’t really drive the car, she’s more along for the ride, a sort of sentient crash-test dummy, with no real destination. And the car is always watching. She can’t read a book or a text message or the car will clock her as ‘inattentive.’ Everyone has felt that their technology is spying on them, but in this case, the technology really is everywhere, all the time.

McGinty was thinking about this creep of technology, but also thinking about the work of being transported by automation, while knowing that the automation is going to replace you. He puts the reader right in the car with Pegs as he writes: 

“It’s not a relaxing thought. She often has the thought that she’s becoming a package. She is constantly transported yet entirely still. Her life is full of motionless motion.”

In the world of “Test Drive,” to be released May 24th by Propeller Books, we’re a little bit further into environmental calamity. Pittsburgh is battered by fierce storms and winds called surges. Many of the city’s 446 bridges are retrofitted with spouts and trunnels and things to allow storms to drain off and when a serious surge hits, everybody gets an alert to shelter. It constantly rains. The weather presses in on the characters. It’s not hard to visualize the Pittsburgh of the novel.

McGinty grew up in Mt. Lebanon then left the area to get his MFA at Portland State in Oregon. He returned to Pittsburgh and is an English instructor at Slippery Rock University. In 2019, he created a seminar course about driverless cars, which he later adapted into a national curriculum. The idea for this novel, though, started on a summer day when McGinty was puttering around in the backyard of his house in Morningside when a driverless car, one that he clocked as being from Uber ATG, drove past.

“This is a really classic, really potholed Pittsburgh alley. And they’re here,” McGinty said. He could see the driver sitting in the car, too. 

“I was thinking about how this sector is pressing into different new parts of the city I wasn’t aware of. And also, quite frankly, looking at that dude, I was thinking what a strange job,” he said.

Because “Test Drive” is set in a more extreme version of the anthropocene, anybody who doesn’t live on the 2nd floor or higher has to deal with constant ceaseless drips, puddles and floods. The apartment Pegs shares with her sister is street level and leaks like the Titanic. When she comes home from another long shift to find more rain rushing into the apartment, she heads out in the storm to try to retrofit some kind of dam against the inescapable water. 

All Pegs can think is that they need to move, which means she needs more money, which means she has to drive more shifts, work more hours. She checks an apartment listing app every free second in her constant search for a safe, dry place that she can also afford. There aren’t any. But she looks anyway.

Pegs and the other test drivers, Leah and Anna, are all drowning under an unfair economic system — as skilled labor whose skills and labor aren’t valued in this economy. Nor is their humanity valued.   

“I don’t think it’s narcissistic to say I thought of my own experiences,” McGinty said of working underpaid, white collar contract work himself. “I found a lot of resonance with these characters and similar experiences I’ve had being an adjunct professor at various places around the country.”

While he was working on his novel, McGinty sometimes thought maybe it was too much, he was going too far. But as he kept writing and observing, it was hard not to see the fault lines:  an out of control housing market, intractable and escalating weather crisis, failing infrastructure, unchecked fealty to technology, and economic inequality. 

“I consider scrutiny to be an act of love — actually focusing your attention on something long enough to examine it, to look at the details,” McGinty said. “I love Pittsburgh and I love being a Pittsburgher, but when you really start looking around … it’s hard not to see that the Google flag is higher than the American flag at Bakery Square and not see that Duolingo is bigger than the library next door to it in East Liberty.” 

Patrick McGinty will read at White Whale Books on Friday, June 3rd at 7:00 pm. He will be joined by Sarah Marshall, host of the “You’re Wrong About” podcast, and Candace Jane Opper, author of “Certain and Impossible Events.”