New York, NY: Liveright, 2016. 208 pages. $24.95.
The elevator pitch for The Red Car, Marcy Dermansky’s third novel, doesn’t scream originality: a thirty-something aspiring writer, spinning her wheels in an unhappy marriage in Queens, finds a new lease on life after traveling to San Francisco to attend her old mentor’s funeral. Yet Dermansky takes a premise trotted out in far too many romantic comedies and tweaks it with verve and magical realism to deliver a lean powerhouse of a novel that flirts with convention while bellowing out in a confident voice.
Dermansky’s protagonist is Leah, and she flies to San Francisco to mourn her former boss Judy, dead in a car accident, whom she hasn’t seen in ten years. Since their last workday together, Leah has moved across the country, earned a writing degree, and married Hans, a character designed for the reader to hate. He is the type of man who makes dinner only to expect praise for his efforts, and once he hears of Leah’s sudden need to travel—her old office pays for a last-minute flight to make the funeral—Hans chokes her to near unconsciousness because he claims he doesn’t want to be left alone. The scene is fast and blunt, and Dermansky captures Hans’s desperation and fragile masculinity in a few fleeting pages that leave a frightening impression. His attack steers the novel into a dark reality, and as the assault ends, Leah, lying in a puddle of her own urine, says, “Hans lay next to me. I don’t think he saw it coming either. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Now, he was stroking my hair” (54). The violence opens her to the misogynistic cruelty that haunts Hans, and once she escapes him and catches her flight, it convinces her that she cannot return home.
Thankfully, the West Coast brings with it a sense of the supernatural that helps alleviate the grimness of Queens. Diego, another former coworker (and failed sexual conquest), greets Leah at the airport, and as they later stand at Judy’s funeral, surrounded by her friends and colleagues, a familiar voice begins to bounce around inside Leah’s head: it’s Judy, listening to and enhancing Leah’s inner monologue. Not truly a ghost, Judy influences Leah’s decisions, and it’s here that the novel first introduces an element of magical realism via a hint of metafiction—is this really Judy talking to her, or is it Leah pretending to have a narrator? It’s an interesting narrative move on the part of Dermansky since Leah’s life has thus far been relatively grounded in reality, yet the author weaves enough small oddities into her story up to this point that the swerve is equally exhilarating and easy to accept.
As a literary device, Judy’s quips give Dermansky space to encourage Leah’s inner journey and hunt for freedom, and they also allow for Judy to drop the occasional cryptic message, creating puzzles for Leah. For instance, shortly after the funeral, Leah bums around her old neighborhood, and the woman now occupying her old apartment seduces her. After they have sex, Judy’s voice says to Leah, “You see,” which spark a series of questions as Leah tries to understand the remark:
You see, you are a lesbian?
You see, you should never have gotten married?
You see, you should have never left San Francisco?
It worried me that I did not understand Judy’s chiding. If the voice was coming from me, wouldn’t I understand my own meaning? (98)
These small and wonderful moments force Leah to shake herself free from each interaction and contemplate the larger picture—after all, what’s a good inner journey narrative without some contemplation of existence? They also prime the reader for an even larger flash of conjury later in the narrative, as The Red Car digs deeper into the use of magical realism once Leah learns she has inherited Judy’s pride and joy, the novel’s titular car, which was smashed up in the fatal accident that killed Judy. “Won’t the car be undrivable?” Leah asks, however, the red sports car mysteriously fixes itself in a manner that is never fully explained by Dermansky. “The body of the car has, essentially, regenerated itself,” Leah and Judy’s bewildered Deadhead mechanic exclaims (114). This second leap into the bizarre is perhaps tougher to swallow than Judy’s voice speaking to Leah, but it’s a necessary one, for it transforms The Red Car from a standard epiphany novel into a kind of modern fairy tale where the hero is bestowed an extraordinary object to help her proceed through her journey. The car, in essence, becomes Leah’s magic wand or magic lamp. This move also signals that anything can happen in this world, clearing the table for Dermansky’s imagination to run wild.
And yet, despite the free pass to do so, The Red Car never leans too hard into, or spends much time contemplating, the magical elements of its narrative. This is ultimately a wise decision, as the novel instead perfectly balances its potpourri of genre: drama, comedy, literary, and fantasy. While Dermansky does take narrative risks, especially in her decision to make the title car’s magical repair something of an unresolved plot device, these scattershot uses of ethereal activity—including Judy’s voice—drive Leah’s journey, and their shagginess complements the character’s own pinball nature. Is there an unexplained energy at work? Perhaps, but Dermansky is more interested in providing her protagonist with opportunities to flourish. There’s a destructive streak in Leah. Her rash choices call to mind a person both fleeing from her reality and trying to recapture an old life, and Dermansky indulges her with copious opportunity to try on new skin.
Leah comments more than once that her story feels like that of a Haruki Murakami novel, and while this argument is valid, particularly in The Red Car’s final third, quite often her dryly sarcastic banter and narration recalls, in the best possible way, the voice of a Lorrie Moore protagonist. Leah describes her friend in Palo Alto as “boring,” because “[s]he was from the Midwest. She had a steady boyfriend from her hometown. She had hair the color of toast and wore clothes that she bought at discount stores” (128). Then, while waiting for an old college fling to arrive at Stanford, Leah notes that she doesn’t like the look of the crowd around her, an audience too “ridiculously young and eager” (142). Witty observations like these keep The Red Car from ever dipping too far into the kind of despair that often accompanies Leah’s feeling of listlessness, and they work with Dermansky’s other narrative decisions to elevate what otherwise could be a middling story of redemption and turn it into a daring, rewarding novel unafraid to defy convention.