Is it ever possible to be a happy minion? What do the waitresses and doormen, drivers and chambermaids make of you? Do they despise you behind your back? Do they scoff at your whims with the rest of the staff? Are they writing a book about you? Yes, you.
Driving the Saudis, by Jayne Amelia Larsen, is a memoir of an actress fallen on hard times, who makes the odd decision to become a limo driver in Los Angeles. She’s left idling in the car park a block away from the parties she once attended, and ferrying dignitaries to buy things she once coveted herself. She hits the sharp end of the American dream, adjudged unworthy of being one of the Beautiful People, and forced back into the service industry. But this is Hollywood, where every waiter has a movie pitch, and every chauffeur has an angle. For an actress, driving a car is an irredeemable fall from grace; for an author, it’s material. When she finds herself conscripted into an army of drivers shuttling a branch of the Saudi royal family around Los Angeles, she starts to keep a diary…
Her clients are ghastly. Some of them are Jew-hating fascists, others are patronising and condescending fundamentalists, although mercifully she is spared any dealings with the men, and merely has to appease a gaggle of bickering soubrettes. There is an overpowering stench of new money, as the capricious princesses demand iPhones on the spot, unaware of the logistics of signing a service contract, and the servants hoard sackfuls of hotel L’Occitane, badgering the chambermaids for more of it, even though they plainly never wash with it themselves. But most of them are simply awful for universally understandable reasons, not because they are racists or fanatics or spoiled, but simply because petrodollars have made them impossibly rich in a land where the customer is always right, able to have literally anything they want by opening a briefcase full of money. Money is power, and you know what they say about absolute power. Maybe Rodeo Drive gets the customers it deserves.
As time goes by, Larsen befriends some of the servants, who sleep five to a room and must hand over their passports, as well as a few clueless princesses: miserable, fidgety things who yearn to watch carefree infidels on skateboards at the beach, before they are taken away to be someone’s third wife in a tent somewhere. Meanwhile, Larsen had enough of a former career to show up on reruns of Judging Amy, leading to a bunch of odd questions from her charges about why she is in the front of a limo instead of the back.
She comes to take a simple, servile pride in her work, immensely proud of herself when she is able to source 40 Chantilly bras at short notice, and to round up all the depilatory cream in Beverly Hills, despite scoring zero appreciation from her bosses. She learns, in the manner of all slaves, not to push too hard to be noticed, and begins hiding her laptop so that the onus ceases to be on her to find 24-hour ice cream parlours and all-night liposuction. But she is also dragged into preposterous power games, as higher-ranking flunkies pass the buck on impossible tasks so that someone else gets fired.
The tension over the revolving-door staffing mounts up as the time ticks by, because a month of 16-hour days, working for cartoonishly unpleasant people, is totally worth it to her if she’s expecting a $20,000 tip and a Rolex. So it goes from being ready to walk out the door at a moment’s notice, flipping the Arabs the finger, to putting up with literally anything in the final weeks, holding out in desperation for that long-awaited gratuity. Larsen artfully teases the reader all along with guessing games about how much the final tip will be.
She struggles to be objective. She reads up on Arab history and culture, and tries in vain to persuade herself that her clients are not deeply-depressed shopaholics, imprisoned by medieval despotism and hopeless fates. Her life in their service has all of the antic chaos of a movie set or military operation, but seemingly achieves precisely nothing, unless you count the fortune shovelled at shopkeepers and thereby funnelled into the American economy. Larsen throws around some impressive statistics, such as the claim that 75% of the world’s couture and luxuries are snapped up by Arabs with more money than sense, who walk around in lonely desert palaces wearing lacy knickers under their burqahs.
There are also glimpses of how civilised people behave — the thoughtful Muslim prince who reads a book every day on his way to college being one of only a tiny handful of the characters who seem remotely likeable; Garrison Keillor, who chivalrously chats her up while she drives him to a book signing; or Kirk Douglas, who admits that he has less posh paintings to show her because he has started selling them off. He is using the money to build children’s playgrounds all over Los Angeles. His quiet philanthropy strikes a rare and noble note in a book populated with gimlet-eyed, grasping termagants, swimming in baths of dirty, sexy money.