The Car Thief
Theodore Weesner
(Astor + Blue)
Well, he is a car thief. In the course of the book he manages to snag sixteen cars. And he's only sixteen years old. Which would be OK but they nail him, send him to juvenile hall.

He has a few other strikes against him. He's one of those guys we went to school with. No one ever paid any attention to them: thy fade into the woodwork, seem to have no friends, and when he talks, he says only the blandest things. We'd say "How's it hangin'?" and he mutters something, looks down, and goes trailing down the hall. Not exactly Porky's when he's around and about.

Alex has a few other problems outside of thinking he is a nobody. His mother abandoned him and his brother when they were quite young, left them with his father "Curly" who works there in Detroit in (what else?) an automobile plant.

Curly is a boozer. And no small-time boozer, either. He's always got a pint here or there in the house, in his pockets, in the car, under the seat. He drinks when he goes to work, he drinks on the job, he drinks when he gets home, and most of the weekend. Alex realizes that he drinks pints because they are easy to hide.

We get to spend three years and almost four hundred pages with Alex and Curly. During which time Alex spends a few months in juvie, and when he gets out, finds the teachers and other students and even the basketball coach shun him.

He tries to fondle one of the girls in his class, peeps in a neighborhood house to watch a woman dressing, goes to see his brother and then runs away after one night.

He's a mess. He doesn't care for himself so much that it is hard for us to care for him too. It's that old wheeze: if you don't love you who's gonna love you?

§   §   §

Weesner is great at painting a bleak picture of a confused juvenile, son of a drunk. Still I am thinking that he might be adjudged guilty of abuse: abuse of his main character, abuse of the reader. You get a defenseless kid like this and you'd think the author would do what he can to make him a little more lovable, or interesting, or distinctive. And you'd think that Weesner would give him a break every now and then: let him have a real friend; give him a few laughs; let him have an occasional streak of luck.

Nothin' doin'. He looks in the mirror, can't stand what he sees. He gets in a fight in juvie, but no triumph there. First hit, the black kid immediately throws himself down on the floor, refuses to fight back.

There are no bright moments with dear old dad either, there in the deadly, cold, snowbound, rust-belt Detroit. The apartment they live in is a mess, the old man's clothes smell of old machine oil, and he's right out of Rocky Raccoon --- comes in, stinking of gin, proceeds to lie on the table.

Alex takes a job as a caddy; one of the lady golfers takes to rubbing up against him, but then she disappears. When Alex returns to school, he studies day and night to make up his geometry, but then the teacher accuses him of cheating.

We have here, in short, a Rust-belt version of The 400 Blows.

§   §   §

There are a couple of places in this book where it comes suddenly to life, and you think maybe the author is going to give all of us a break. With his vigor and drive, Alex on the basketball court amazes us all, even the reader. But Varney the coach is not impressed: he doesn't like car thieves on the team, so Alex is dumped.

The only other jolt comes when Alex steals car #16. He has been given probation for his previous joy rides (which weren't very joyful; Weesner doesn't want him --- or us --- to have any fun). If Alex gets caught, he'll be sent upriver for years, so it's an exciting ride in that Olds 98 and there are a couple of times when we think he is a goner (are the cops in that car behind him going to stop him ... or just drive on?). But the kid pulls it off, abandons the car where it won't be found for a couple of days, and gets home. This take-your-breath-away sequence comes two-thirds of the way through the book. It was a long haul getting there.

Finally Alex is allowed to join the army. Great! Now he has a purpose, can go off to Vietnam and get laced with Agent Orange and become staff sergent. Yes! No. When Alex finally gets to the training camp in Virginia, he is 48 hours early so he has to sleep under the barracks' steps. And as he is preparing for his first day in his new career, shaving --- for the first time ever --- he cuts himself and bleeds, and I am thinking "if he can't even wield a goddamn razor, how in hell is he going to get overseas to make the world safe for democracy?"

So I reaffirm that I accuse the author of reader abuse. To get to the end of Car Thief we have to wade through seas of drear prose, dark cold nights on the streets of Detroit, old drunks, dirty snow, crabby teachers, insulting coaches, unfeeling golfers, indifferent mothers, and dad passed out or talking stupid: all told in the bleakest, darkest, driest, grimmest prose imaginable.

I call it reader abuse, and I say the hell with it.

--- Lolita Lark
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