The living dead are here in Madison.
No, it’s not zombies or overly skinny University of Wisconsin students from the East Coast. It’s a cab driver, and his name is Al.
This imaginative leading man, er, dead man is part of Madison native Fred Schepartz’s new book, "Vampire Cabbie." The story of the ghoulish, taxi-driving protagonist is told through a first-person narrative, and its wry humor is appropriate and creepy all at the same time. Count Al Farkus is an enormously wealthy and ancient vampire whose vast fortune disappears with the 1987 stock market crash and winds up in the money-grubbing paws of a greedy accountant. The whole Madison culture is thus filtered through this creature-of-the-night lens, which gives the narrative a refined and European tone, as if Vincent Price and the Fresh Prince are speaking through the same bloodthirsty voice.
The author places many references to Madison in the book, discussing everything from UW students to bad housing on campus. The cab company Al works for, Co-op Cab, is really Union Cab, a company that Schepartz himself has worked with for years. This knowledge of the city really shows in "Cabbie," with esoteric references in abundance.
What’s most striking about Schepartz’s work, though, is reading this sincere tale of Madison at a time before people realized what a great place Wisconsin’s capital is. The Madison in "Cabbie" has a very different atmosphere with a slower, but more endearing, pace of life. At the same time, the city feels familiar in that there are just as many drunks as there are now. It is this peak into the past that makes "Vampire Cabbie" a work of nuanced nostalgia.
Though it is hard not to laud a local writer, some parts of “Vampire Cabbie” were just not very well written. This may be due to poor editing or a lack of resources (the publishing company, Literary Road, is also local to Madison). The florid style also sometimes does take away from the content in some passages, which is unfortunate. And violence is strangely absent. After all, this is still a novel about a vampire. "Vampire Cabbie" does illustrate the difficulties and surprising encounters that come with moving to a new place, especially Madison, and the humor at least has an edge of macabre.
The novel’s greatest strength, however, are the scores of unique landmarks and subtle Madisonian hints that any UW student could pick up on. But the book’s attention to detail also makes it a great read for someone unfamiliar to the Wisconsin capital and no conception of Madison’s local history or customs.
So if you’re looking a spin on the vampire story, or to delve deep into the cult of Madison, don’t be afraid of taking a ride with "Vampire Cabbie."
"Vampire Cabbie" hits shelves on October. 25. A release party, complete with zombie-rock band Knuckel Drager, will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the High Noon Saloon where Schepartz will be present to sign copies of his novel.