Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
Words fall a bit short when describing Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. I have to imagine that trying to explain this book — its complexity, its brilliance, the way it manages to make perfect emotional sense even though almost everything about it is, on the surface at least, absurd — must pose a significant marketing challenge. I’ll admit to some skepticism when I first got this thing in the mail: “If you think raising a kid in today’s world is hard,” the jacket copy reads, “imagine how tough it would be if your child also happened to be a Volkswagen Beetle.”
You read that correctly. The book, which had arrived out of nowhere, was placed in the unpromising stack of books, notebooks, and Random Pieces of Paper that daily threatens to take over my entire desk. It stayed there for weeks. I think I forgot about it. Until a day not long ago when it fell out of the stack — as things sometimes do, because the entire pile collapses every time a cat jumps on it — just when I was looking for a book to take with me on the subway. Fine, I thought, a Volkswagen Beetle. The premise didn’t grab me, but on the other hand, the book is published by Melville House, which is one of my favorite presses. I thought I’d give both book and publisher the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. I was hooked by the end of the first page.
Boucher’s strange and dazzling novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. She finds this more troubling than he does and quickly flees the scene, leaving him to raise a fragile young VW while coping with the aftermath of his father’s death. His father was killed by a Heart Attack Tree who came slinking down out of the woods in dirty jeans, having heard the father’s heart beating from afar; the Tree slunk up to him where he sat in the country market building at Atkins Farm and took his heart from his chest. Then the Heart Attack Tree, realizing that his crime had at least one witness, got behind the deli counter of the Farm, revved the engine, and drove the farm away down the highway with the man’s dying father and a number of Atkins Farm employees still inside. I want to say he used the farm as a getaway car, but, well, he didn’t. It was a get-away farm.
A great many things in Boucher’s world can be driven. (Farms, for example, and also musical riffs.) If you open the hood of your car, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll find either an amateur theatre production in progress or an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Phrases that are clichéd and dead in our world — time is money, music transports you — are literal and alive in the world of the book: time really is money (the narrator is nameless, because he took his name to a pawnshop and got twenty-two hours for it), and music really does transport you; some of the new tunes on Route 16 are exciting, but it’s an impractical way to travel, because time passes differently inside the music and by the time you get out of the tune and back on Route 16 a couple weeks might have gone by in the outside world. The narrator gets yelled at by his boss for this reason.
Everything in this world is alive and animate. Take, for instance, the moment of the VW’s conception:
“Shit,” I said. I sat up. “Look, look,” I said, checking for breath, for a pulse.
There was nothing. “I think it’s gone,” I said.
“What?” she said, and turned on the light.
“The condom. It’s dead. It’s not breathing.”
They give the condom a proper burial in a little matchbox coffin outside in the sparkling cold. The narrator breaks down when the coffin is lowered into the hole. Later, back in the apartment, “we got into this conversation about what happens when you die. I wanted to know: Why did it happen? What had the condom (or my father, for that matter) done wrong in its life? And where did it go?”
The narrator is a writer at a newspaper. His editor is a block of cheese. His best friend is a chest of drawers; they go hiking together. The VW comes too, sometimes, but he’s a delicate child/car and often too sick to keep up. A ratchet starts crying and has a meltdown while the narrator’s using him to try to fix the VW; the narrator’s not about to just give up a ratchet that he’s spent good time on, so he takes the ratchet to a local therapist. The session deteriorates when the therapist asks the narrator to come into the room:
Then the ratchet began to sniffle and a tear ran down his cheek. The therapist turned to him. “Harold?” he said.
“Ask him about his project — about his son,” said the ratchet. “Ask him how he runs and where it goes—”
“Listen,” I said. “None of this is very complicated.”
“Not complicated!” the ratchet said.
“I’m a single parent trying to raise my son — that’s all.”
“A car that runs on stories!” shouted the ratchet.
The VW does run on stories, mostly. It also requires a certain variety of chai tea in large quantities, and also love. When it breaks down, it has to be fed new narratives; when the Love Pressure gauge drops below a certain level, it’s sometimes necessary to drive into the nearest populated area in search of acts of kindness before the car stalls altogether. These procedures are explicated at some length in the sections of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive that are modeled after the 1969 Volkswagen handbook of the same title, where the narrator describes the chaotic and beautiful workings of the VW. These are the sections, incidentally, where the momentum of the book occasionally falters, particularly near the beginning.
But for all the surrealism, there’s nothing glib about the book. The narrator’s beloved son, the VW, is ill throughout and getting sicker; he’s prone to breakdowns and struggling with rust, since the novel’s set more or less in the present and the VW is, after all, a ’71. What we’re left with, through all the insanity and dizzying leaps of logic that make up Boucher’s world, are a series of absolutely human and recognizable truths: it’s unspeakably sad when a parent dies. It’s really scary when your kid’s seriously ill. It can be comforting to avoid change, to stay close to home (“Want to know where we are geographically? Take a look at Gauge Fourteen: It should say ‘Northampton.’”) We spend our lives trying to understand the world, and understanding the world means telling ourselves stories about it; which means, of course, that we all run on stories, whether we’ve thought about it in those terms or not.
This is the first book review I’ve written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly’s online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music. Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter. I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally.
Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me. Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school. These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired. Still, I gave them a fair shake. A few rose above to really impress me. Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity. Several were nearly too dreadful to finish.
When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first. To do so, I often imagined a book’s ideal reader. Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn’t it. Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling. Stranger things have come to pass. Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it.
Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader’s hands. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail. In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate.
This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield’s memoir Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost as much as I did. You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting. Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won’t appeal to you. If so, I understand. Maybe you went to a state school.
On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar. I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s. I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency. Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years. And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I. For one thing, I love campus literature. My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is “The Christian Roommate.” I also enjoy books whose characters simply can’t get out of their own way. Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. There’s just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose.
Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus. Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke. It’s committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them. It’s this freedom that attracts him. Well, that and the promise of a single room.
Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and “Preppy Deadheads”: students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite). Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life.
When he’s caught scrawling some graffiti on someone’s Bob Marley poster, he’s exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live. He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus.
It’s here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve. One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college’s modular housing units deep in the woods. From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich.
Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning:
Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school. Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath. He didn’t want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves “the Supreme Dicks,” might try — he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand — might try to talk to me. You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them — one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died…My heart raced. Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me?
Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks. It’s there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience. For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny’s two towns over. Despite a mounting panic about whether they’d have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance.
To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins). One couldn’t rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism. And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else. And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book.
At its heart, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance. Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the “other” at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression. The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn.
That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield’s storytelling abilities. He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary. The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason.
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative: the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours. There’s even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break. But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect. Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time. The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire: “Supreme Dicks rule, OK.” But then again, they’re preaching to the choir with me.