REVIEW: How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, by Christopher Boucher

Raising a child is like fixing an old car, and vice versa. That is the central metaphor of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Viewed one way, this is comedy—cars are fickle, like kids, and you can never be certain they will run exactly as planned. Viewed another way, it’s tragic—children are mechanical beings, in constant need of fuel and repairs, and inevitably they will break down. The narrator of Boucher’s novel—called ____, since he sold his name to a pawn shop—claims his son is a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle, and a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle his son. Son and car are a single entity. The book could be called How to Keep Your Son Alive.

Still in shock after the sudden death of his father, and still figuring out how to raise his son alone, ____ sets out to write an instruction manual for everyone whose son or daughter is a Volkswagen. Copying the format of a real-life Volkswagen manual of the same name, he covers the basics—how to change the sufferoil, where to find the engineheart—and illustrates everything with personal stories.  ____’s stories are mainly pedestrian. He drives around western Massachusetts with/in his son the Volkswagen, scrounges for money as a journalist, and obsesses over the senseless death of his father. He would be a familiar narrator—the lifelong loser with a biting wit—if it weren’t for his pathological insistence on metaphors.

Poetic metaphor has been around since Odysseus sailed the “wine-dark sea.” Conceptual metaphor—the mapping of one set of ideas onto another, like life = journey, or anger = fire—has only been studied by cognitive linguists since about 1980. ____ employs every kind of metaphor there is. At the simplest level, he replaces words for money with words for time. Metonymically, when ____’s brother moves to Colorado, it’s literally Colorado that calls on the phone, eventually breaks his heart, and shows up later to deliver a final insult. Boucher’s buckshot approach to poetic language occasionally becomes absurd.

In the event of an unshift, open up the engine compartment and remove the control unit. Then, take out the momentpump. Underneath it you’ll see a middle transmission, encased completely in glass. Some Beetle owners describe the transmission as taco-like—I’ve heard others say it looks like a bird in a glass coffin. Like I say, every car is different. Plus, the transmission is still a sort of mystery-vision for me—I know that it connects to the engineheart (where stories are bred), for example, but I can’t say how. All I can tell you is that the transmission connects the story to the reader, and thus, that it’s an integral part of the car.

This may be nonsense, but it feels exactly right, like the way you can read a word even if all the interior letters are scrambled. When ____ arrives at the scene of his father’s death, and interrogates an Invisible Pickup Truck about the Heart Attack Tree who ripped all the stories out of his father’s chest, the emotional intensity of the writing is real, even if its elements are ludicrous. Boucher’s deliberate confusion of words and concepts can serve to deflect sentimentality in what is, at base, a highly sentimental story. And it can surprise the reader with emotional resonance, even during the sections on car maintenance.

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is a deceptively avant-garde novel. Like an engine overhaul, it re-configures our understanding of how a story can be told. The plot, which requires ____ to regain his name, take revenge on his father’s killer, and save his son the Volkswagen from a strange affliction, doesn’t become urgent until the last 40 pages. But the first 200 pages are a pleasure in their own right, a swift ride through a landscape of nearly stupefying emotions.

Brian Hurley


Filed under Hooray Fiction!, review

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