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.