Published by Grove Press on 2001-02
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Disclosure: I received an ARC of this this book from the publicists at Blue Dot Literary in exchange for an honest review.
The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner was first published in 1972 by Random House and has had a sporadic republishing history. It was republished in 1987 by Vintage and again in 2001 by Grove Press. It’s newest incarnation in eBook format by Astor + Blue will ensure this literary gem reaches the wide audience it deserves.
I’ve been reading early American literature for my PhD program and “fluff” for the first few weeks of summer so I wasn’t at all prepared for how literary this book was. That’s not to say that literary is a bad thing. It’s not. In fact, it’s quite refreshing to read a story so well-crafted and that gives such wonderful attention to language and detail. I’ll say that the first chapter came as a shock to my system. However, once the initial shock wore off, I was engrossed with the story. I was buckled in with Alex ready for him to take me on a joyride. What a ride it was.
Honesty and the Coming of Age Story in The Car Thief
Like any bildungsroman, The Car Thief is a coming of age story. However, unlike other notable bildungsromans like The Catcher in the Rye (which I hated) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which I loved), The Car Thief is poignant and beautiful and saddening all at the same time. There’s something to be said for simplicity, of simple words strung together in an honest way telling an honest story. There is something about The Catcher in the Rye and Perks of Being a Wallflower that seem a bit to contrived and even phony at points. Never once did I have that impression with The Car Thief. I think it reaffirmed my faith in the bildungsroman genre.
An idea came to mind: a simple wish to be a person other than the person he was. The idea rose quietly; he did not move in the cot. As if it were actually possible, the idea became lucid, until he knew, in sudden disappointment, that it was not possible at all. (loc. 991)
This is what I’m talking about. Honesty. Alex has these thoughts while incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, a place where he is forced to examine his memories in search for an answer as to why he’s there. We learn that his mother abandoned he and his younger brother, Howard, only to come back five years later and just take Howard to live with her. How heartbreaking it must have been for Alex to not only have his brother taken away from him but to also grapple with the idea that his mother didn’t ask to take him as well. He and his well-meaning father, Curly, live as best as they can and love each other as best as they can, but their relationship can only be defined as ships passing through the night. This father/son relationship is the core of the novel. In many ways, Alex is the caretaker of his drunken father. That’s quite an ordeal at 16 and much of the reason why he gets into trouble in the first place. He acts out for attention. The need for someone to notice him.
Shame in The Car Thief
After Alex is released from detention, he vows to change his life, to become the kind of man that people would want to notice. This section of the novel was the most heartbreaking for me. He returns to school only to be faced with hatred from the principle, teachers who have no interest in helping him after he’s made it clear that he’s determined to pass, and students who whisper behind his back and call him names. He really is just as isolated as before. Even his crush on Irene Schaeffer is met with some struggle. Though she does seem interested, Alex’s self-confidence is what holds him back. He says:
He did not belong there, he told himself. Still, even though he knew it was hopeless, he walked toward her house. Here was the same street he had driven through in the Buicks and Chevrolets. How could she ask him to do something like this, to come to her house? He was sure her parents did not know about him. (loc. 3441)
I think it’s good that he’s so ashamed of his past. It’s really the moment where the paranoia of being “found out” fades away to shame – the kind of shame that drives him to better himself.
Reconciliation in The Car Thief
The last section of the book is perhaps my favorite. Juvenile Alex is replaced by a more adult Alex who is ready to start the rest of his life by joining the Army. He reconciles with his brother Howard, who he hasn’t seen since his mother took him away, and is a bit more insight into just how much his father means to him. Though their lives haven’t been ideal, Alex realizes that they are, inevitably, cut from the same cloth, that his father has been more present and more loving (in his own way) than his mother ever has. It ends with him arriving at bootcamp and one of the most poignant sections of the entire book:
He pressed the bristles of the brush into the soap, and spread the lather over his cheeks, until he knew that he was afraid to look up at himself in the mirror. It seemed his father might look back at him from the reflection of his own eyes. He look up then, and for a moment he imagined the man was looking into him … The thought came to him that here in the army, perhaps, they would call him Curly. (loc. 5269-5277)
The shift from being ashamed of his father to hoping to imitate him solidifies Alex’s change from boy to man.
Overall, The Car Thief‘s poignancy and honesty make it a book for all to read. Though technically YA, The Car Thief is timeless and ageless, meant to reach a wide range of people. I think we all suffer from the pain and shame of life and can easily identify with Alex’s need to reconcile and move on.
© 2012 – 2014, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.