New York, NY: Melville House Press, 2011. 240 pages. $15.00.
Christopher Boucher’s first novel, How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, is an unusual performance. It asks us to accept that a ’71 Volkswagen Beetle could be a human child, and treats this child with a literal, mimetic authenticity. The Volkswagen’s life is recounted by his father, a gentle-hearted everyman whose own father has just been murdered. While the novel doesn’t have the strongest plot—it floats from episode to episode, accumulating meaning and regret instead of consequences, since the ending of the story is foretold—the reader is immersed in the emotion of Boucher’s strange and fascinating world.
This accomplished, wrenching book, so dense with specificity and character, doesn’t miss whatever thrust a stronger plot would have provided. The narrator’s father has died before the story begins, and the slow death of his son is announced so early on that the story, while crammed with miscellaneous incident, feels like a ritual of waiting for this loss to occur. The book meanders anecdotally as the narrator makes discoveries about life against a backdrop of death and maintains a kind of frantic dignity. He falls in love with a woman called “Scientist,” and this relationship, like all the others in the book, begins in joy and ends in damage. “Sometimes she was fond of me,” Boucher writes, “and sometimes she treated me like an orange traffic cone.” The book’s impression of love may not be sentimental, but neither is it pessimistic. Later, the narrator finds the “Heart Attack Tree” who killed his father, and, in a stunning passage, kills it and cuts it into logs.
The oddness of the book’s conceit—a son who’s a Volkswagen—may seem cute at first, but is ultimately haunting, and this pattern of deceptive sentimentality that gives way to estrangement is the figure in the carpet of the novel. The narrator’s father is killed by a “Heart Attack Tree” but lingers as “The Memory of My Father,” and the tree itself is tracked down and confronted. These days, we seem to call surreal any attempt at displacement or dreamy illogic, but HTKYVA doesn’t really de-stabilize meaning or use dreams to plumb the depths of the psyche. To Boucher, love is actually love, not a cognitive illusion or deceptive social script. The dislocations of the book do not imply a deeper fissure in the text, as with, say, certain stories by Robert Coover, or, more recently, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia or Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. Several long passages describe the organs of the child/VW hybrid, which grow more and more mysterious every time they’re named, and while these chapters are exceedingly specific, the sum of them appears to be you cannot understand a child or save its life.
The unremitting strangeness of the boy is ingenious. The ’71 Beetle is iconic and nostalgic, and thus both misunderstood and more dead than alive, and because we love it automatically, we may wish Boucher had chosen another, less precious car—say, a Saturn—but the boy is very stubborn, and his childishness negates whatever sentimentality one feels for him. In the novel, love occurs first as a delusion, then as a burden. Once the child really starts to die, he runs away, a stupid, self-defeating gesture one could only forgive a child for. After he is dead, his father keeps on trying to bring him back, to coax another thousand miles from him.
All the book’s surprises act like prisms that disturb ideas we’d otherwise take for granted. The narrator loves his father—and it’s refreshing to read a book where this is so—but when the father dies and re-appears as “The Memory of My Father,” he functions as a second-guessing, undermining ghost. Meanwhile, “The Two Sides of My Mother” is clearly named for being unpleasant, but curiously, she isn’t unpleasant at all, and the narrator looks petty for his treatment of her. Like everyone else in the novel, she’s not her name. “The Heart Attack Tree,” being a tree and therefore natural, is somehow more at home in our imagination than the child, who is, after all, a car. Even the title of the book is ironic—turns out you can’t keep your Volkswagen alive.
Boucher’s voice and touch are spry and keep what might have been a heavy book aloft. His language clamors lightly, like a poet’s: “The peanut-and-gas smell of the Moan and Dove, an overcast drive down Conz, the Troubadorian streaming-of, the swinging money of a July afternoon—then passes to something called a distributor.” He’s bold and sensitive at once and, when necessary, he keeps the focus on what he says and not how he says it—“I just kept thinking: This was the hand I was born with—a smaller, weaker revision of my father’s hand—and look what I’d done to it.” But mostly the book can’t help showing plumage: “Once I was on my way towards Route 116 when, in the middle of those Cranberry turns, I looked over and found my passenger to be an old, creaky mechanical bull.”
One imagines that the novelty of this project left Boucher feeling uninhibited. He has what might be called the freedom of the first-time novelist, who gets bolder and more confident by accumulating risk. He seems utterly naïve to just how hard this book should be to write. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive lays waste to rituals of mourning, yet this is not a book of grief, but honest coping, free of empty consolation. Even if the rest of Christopher Boucher’s books are not this brave, he will never have to prove his courage again.