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.
A year after the end of the Second World War, a young man steps off a bus in what remains of Germany. It’s winter, one of the coldest in anyone’s memory, and the long journey homeward, from Hanover, to Cologne, and finally through the Lower Rhineland, has kept him shivering. A deeper fear also penetrates. He has misgivings about what has happened to his family, who have they become, who will he meet. He doesn’t announce the visit, he wants to keep it a surprise, but when he steps off the bus, he walks straight into them. They are standing in the cold, waiting for a bus themselves, his mother, father, and sister. He has not set eyes on them in over two years, and instead of joy, his first reaction is horror. When Günter Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion was released in Germany, it was met with a different kind of horror. In it, after decades of silence, Grass acknowledged that he had willingly served as a tank gunner in the Waffen-SS, the elite and much-feared paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. For a man who spent his adult life excoriating hypocrisies in others, especially in former Nazis, the revelation was rich fodder for his critics. Much of the reaction to the memoir focused on Grass’s confession, and battle lines were rapidly drawn. Some called for his Nobel Prize to be revoked, and others applauded his bravery in finally setting the record straight. No one sees clearly in war, certainly not in one on the scale of World War Two, and to blindly lay the crimes of a sixteen year-old at the old man’s feet requires a willful ignorance of what memory is, what trauma is, and in this case, what the transformations of spirit and self that a young man who wants to be an artist needs to put himself through. The firestorm died down, Grass did not lose his Nobel medal; instead he left for us, in the ashes of that firepit, a riveting account of the apprenticeship of a writer. And more than that, perhaps the best guide to how write a novel ever published. The young man who greeted his own family with horror at the Fliesstetten bus station in 1946 would not remain home long. His father wanted him to become a “paper pusher” at the local coal mine, a very good job at the time, but one the young artist wannabe thought ridiculous. His mother looked careworn, beaten down, and the four of them slept in a single crowded room and spent the evenings huddled together for warmth. Grass fled as soon as he could, carrying a stack of poems and sketches, for Düsseldorf and the art school there. It was closed due to lack of coal. A chance meeting led him to apprentice as a stonemason. But already, as he writes, he was gripped by an insatiable desire “to conquer all with images.” He had passed through the war with two hungers. The first was for food, the second for sex. At an American POW camp, he took lessons from a fellow prisoner, a chef who, lacking actual ingredients, described the recipes, the dishes, the processes, and all with such loving detail that everyone who listened groaned with excruciating desire. Later, on buses to and from the stone cutters, he would find himself squeezed against young working women who more often than not, in that era of deprivation, seemed happy to oblige some mildly carnal pleasure for the duration of the short bus journey. His third hunger was for art. The journey he makes, from drawing and poems, to sculpture, and finally to those unwieldy, fantastical novels, the prose he never believed he would write, is rendered in a hopscotch of memory and forgetting, of mislaid chronologies and chance encounters. “One never knows what will make a book,” Grass writes. “The transformation of lived life, life in the raw, into a text undergoing constant revision and coming to rest only between covers, can come from a tombstone belonging to an unsightly pile of tombstones shunted off to their side, their time having passed.” It is these transformations that Grass chronicles here, brief snatches, small flames that illuminate a whole forest. Grass uses everything. His old friends are transformed, sometimes again and again. Korneff, a senior journeyman in real life, is given his own workshop in The Tin Drum, just so he can show the novel’s anti-hero how to turn a slab of stone into a monument. A youthful tour of cemeteries returns decades later in The Call of the Toad. His teachers, his friends, his lovers, all make their entrances and exits. Discovering (inventing? meeting?) Oskar Matzerath, the midget anti-hero of The Tin Drum, in the rubble of postwar Germany was a revelation. Grass found himself reduced to being little more than a “writing implement” chronicling Oskar’s entrances. Oskar “determined who was to die, who was granted miraculous survival.” The midget fiend Oskar compelled Grass to “haunt his early years.” Furthermore, he “gave me leave to put everything which had claim to truth between question marks.” It was Oskar, writes Grass, who turned his gentle pacifist professor, Pankok, into Professor Kuchen, “a volcano whose explosions blackened any sheet of paper with brute expressive power.” This archaeologist Grass, this merciless excavator of his own past, is the man who would become the novelist, and it is only through such relentless exploitation of the self that he manages to remake the world on the page. What makes Grass’s memoir such a compelling and unusual master class in the art of fiction is not that he tells the reader how to write, but he shows, through glimpses, how he himself did it, and specifically, how he wrote his own life into his novels. Not much is left after the decades. “People required by their professions to exploit themselves learn over the years to value fragments,” Grass writes. There is an overlooked ID card he never used. Little else. So much has been commandeered into the service of art, that now, Grass writes, “I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts.” Italo Calvino said he regretted writing his first, autobiographical novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He claimed it stole his memories of his youth, and whatever recollections he retained were forever infected by the fictional version. Grass harbors no similar regrets. Memory, for him, is by its nature unstable. It reforms, configures, transfigures, jumbles, erases, invents, it builds, ultimately, a likeness of ourselves in our own image, much as a novel does. And like the novelist who raids his own past, it is supremely selfish, hoarding for itself what it needs, carelessly jettisoning the unnecessary. The young man Grass, who was horrified at the transformation of his family by the war, does his best to shun them. He misses his mother’s death and funeral. Only after, through many roundabout conversations with his sister, does he learn the cause of her careworn face. She was raped repeatedly by Russian conscripts, and offered herself willingly in exchange for the guarantee that her daughter would not be touched. Whether Grass uses this he does not say. But the ugly shadow of the knowledge, and the long years it was hidden from him, like the shadow of the eager Waffen-SS recruit he tried desperately to forget, writes itself across all his work with power, anger, and tragedy.
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When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there's scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There's the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck's biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg's biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there's the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin's book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it's like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort's recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas' Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is "unsurpassed."