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Shifting Gear

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page C03


By Porter Shreve

Houghton Mifflin. 272 pp. $23

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Lydia Modine's husband, Cy, has left her. Cy was never a particular picnic, but he hung around for 33 years and was a decent father to their three grown children: Ivan, who works now in Washington; Davy, who's off somewhere going through his own drama with a falling-down start-up dot-com venture and a girlfriend who's mad at him; and Jessica, a moody girl who left home one day in a beat-up van and drove all the way to Oregon, where she works now as a food checker in an organic grocery store and has an unattractive boyfriend named Void. They're all about as far as they can get from Detroit, where Lydia has spent more than half her life making a home for all of them, where her father made his career designing cars, where Cy worked on and off in that same business, and where Lydia herself has made a career of her own, writing various volumes of history about the iconic, mysterious, convenient, destructive American car.

Now, like any other "pseudo-elegant heap of tin" (to quote James Baldwin), Lydia has been junked. She hasn't seen her kids for a year and a half, and they're only coming home because their dad, Cy, is getting married to Ellen, a woman half his age. The happy couple will be moving to Phoenix, where they plan to lie in the sun and devote themselves to a life of pleasure. Lydia, stuck in Detroit, is all alone, a product of that quintessential automotive phenomenon, planned obsolescence.

How dare she complain? It's the American way. If a guy is halfway cute, or bored, or doesn't get enough attention or feels his wife doesn't understand him, he's more than entitled to "turn his 40 in for a 20," or in this case, his "61 in for a 35." And certainly American children are encouraged to finish school, get a job and get out of the house. (Our popular magazines suggest that there's something wrong with living at home with your parents, although people in other cultures often live at home until they marry and start families of their own.)

As a result of all this, Lydia lives her life in museums. She frequents the archives of the Ypsilanti Automobile Museum, collecting material for her books. (This is where she meets Norm, a desperately eccentric car "expert" who feels that the Big Three have done their best to ruin American culture, as well as bring down the only authentic genius to come out of Detroit, the automotive engineer Preston Tucker.) But the real museum she presides over is her home, which is beautifully kept up in the living room, dining room and kitchen but filled to the brink with relics everywhere else: the attic, with all the detritus from her parents' lives, including a clay model of the Tucker 48, designed in part by her father; a basement filled with all the flotsam of Cy's flighty life, including his exercise gear, fishing tackle and God knows what else; and the separate bedrooms of her children, filled with all the junk they couldn't be bothered to take when they left. And out in the garage, there's a 1957 Chevrolet Nomad, a classic bought by Cy to restore, but then abandoned -- just one of the many projects he started and then quit.

The truth is that although the kids call fairly regularly, they don't waste any thought at all on Lydia and how she feels. Her place in the family now is curator of the past. How many underappreciated mothers-in-law and grannies and even ex-wives have we expected to perform this function for us -- storing our toys, old prom dresses or even battered but beloved motorcycles? That's a woman's job. And even though the author stacks the deck by giving Lydia a career -- or at least a pastime -- and paints a watery admirer in the far background waiting to step into the picture, Lydia is in a fix.

Ironically, it's the daughter (who's most like her) who precipitates the action in this novel. Jessica, with her dead-end job and boyfriend, is just as much in limbo as her mother. She is stuck; she can't go forward or back. While her brothers (mildly) blame their dad for sleazing out and marrying someone half his age, Jessica blames her mother for everything -- her housekeeping, her efficiency, the weather in Detroit. Finally, after one condescending remark too many, Lydia tells her daughter a big, whopping lie -- ostensibly to get her family back, but more probably to get them off her back. She's like a dog shaking off fleas.

To the author's credit, we never know Lydia's real motivation; the last sentence of the novel can be either hopeful or heartbreaking, depending on how the reader sees it. "Drives Like a Dream" is a beautiful novel, carefully put together, full of charming secondary characters, charitable to all, even -- or especially -- Cy and his prissy new wife. The tone here is comic, even genial, but the theme is sad. Everything we have, we lose. Life, despite America's feverish materialism, is ephemera. Everyone we knew or know, up to and including ourselves, will all too soon be obsolete, whether we plan for it or not.

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