America’s love affair with cars has been running on fumes for years. With the bankruptcy of Detroit, the triumph of imports and our ever-clogging traffic, it’s harder than ever to recall when the country saw itself reflected in the chassis of a perfectly tuned automobile.
Of course, teens still want to drive — away from their parents, at least — but how many spend Saturday afternoons in the garage tinkering on their clunkers? Combine an education system that neglects vocational training with a class system that denigrates mechanical labor and you eventually arrive at a nation of people who can’t change the oil on their Honda Civic. For all its unfathomable mystery, that “check engine” light might as well say, “capture unicorn.”
In the great encyclopedia that is modern fiction, I’ve read many more novels about the intricacies of trading stocks or making pastries or testing pharmaceuticals than I have about replacing a timing belt. Still, that arena of pistons and camshafts can be just as fascinating as any other arcane craft, which is what drew me to Wayne Harrison’s new novel, “The Spark and the Drive.” The dust jacket is eager to tell us that Harrison has published stories in McSweeney’s and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but — please — you can’t swing a torque wrench without hitting some Brooklyn novelist who’s done that. Far more singular is the fact that Harrison was once an auto mechanic. He can write with authority about engines and the people who fix these machines at the center of our lives.
As it turns out, his competence under the hood is just one of several qualities that makes “The Spark and the Drive” such an engaging debut. Like Richard Russo , Philipp Meyer and Mark Slouka, Harrison understands the rusting body of American labor. These are grease-smeared pages, full of the sounds of revving motors and the anxieties of narrowly educated men in a fading field.
Harrison’s first page casts the novel in the twilight of American muscle cars: “Ten years after the EPA came down on Detroit like a church on Galileo, we still see no renaissance of horsepower on the showroom floor.” That’s a death knell for the service stations dedicated to overhauling and repairing the real cars that Detroit once produced.
By the late 1980s, the new vehicles coming off the assembly lines are smaller, cleaner and controlled by electronics. We’ve read about the shuttering of factories and steel mills, but Harrison lets us hear the distant reverberations of that collapse in Waterbury, Conn. For mechanics who learned their trade in driveways and garages — men who can visualize “the valves open and close . . . the power stroke, the crank whipping through the oil” — this new world of computer diagnostics feels baffling, demoralizing and effete.
If any of this sounds familiar, you may be remembering an autobiographical story called “Least Resistance,” which Harrison published in the Atlantic in 2009. The next year it appeared in “Best American Short Stories,” and it’s been built out to encompass a more complex plot and a rapidly changing economy in “The Spark and the Drive.”
Justin Bailey, narrator of this mournful tale, knows the glory of American automobiles is already past, but that patina of nostalgia only makes the cars more irresistible. Rather than go off to college, he follows his heart and gets a job at the Out of the Hole auto shop.
“I fell in love with the math of physical mechanics, the order, the predictability,” he says, “that was lacking from my everyday life.” But it’s not just reliable cause-and-effect he craves. His mother, burdened with Justin’s younger sister, is an alcoholic; his father, a literary agent, has recently come out of the closet. All that turmoil leaves Justin casting about for a role model. “I understood the general repair mechanic to be the perfect masculine blend of strength and intelligence,” he says. “Real men had a natural respect for mechanics.”
That search for authentic masculinity is a weighty preoccupation of “The Spark and the Drive.” Justin narrates this story from years in the future when he’s a husband and father, but he can still recall how intensely his teenage self struggled to figure out how a man should behave. The consummate example is Nick Campbell, owner of the Out of the Hole and one of the finest mechanics in the country.
“In my eagerness he saw a certain capacity for imagination,” Justin says, “which was enough for me to feel anointed, to covet his life and believe that I could one day receive it as my own.”
This is, we sense from the start, a tale of doomed friendship and hard-won knowledge about the toxic mix of idolization and envy. While Nick is a prescient businessman and a fair-dealing boss, no one could possibly live up to Justin’s oxygenated ideals of manhood, competence and sexual vitality. That trouble becomes apparent early in the novel when Nick and his wife lose their baby to SIDS. Struck silent and alienated by grief, they both turn to Justin for solace. The eager teenager is flattered, of course, but he can’t possibly comprehend the harrowing depth of their sorrow or the complexity of their marriage. His efforts to befriend and comfort them eventually corrode into something shameful and destructive.
This relatively trim novel sometimes feels like a Ford Fiesta running on 12 cylinders. It’s elaborately tricked out with eye-catching accessories, from drag racing to drug dealing to rape and murder and a host of other violations. Harrison sometimes struggles to keep a balance between his mature, reflective narrator and the earnest young man he once was — so sensitive, so inclined to over-analysis and grandiosity. A little more distance, a little more irony in the narrator’s voice might have kept a few of these lines from grating with naivete.
That’s an awfully minor complaint, though, about such a terrifically engaging story. “Automobiles were like a great species among us,” Justin says, “more vital and abiding than most people in our lives, yet only a handful of us fully understood their complicated language.” Whether or not you love cars, Harrison speaks that special dialect so fluently that anyone with a heart can hear it. In this end, this isn’t so much a novel about the great vehicles we lost as it is about the antique ideals we keep rebuilding and polishing.
THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE
By Wayne Harrison
St. Martin’s. 275 pp. $25.99