How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive By Christopher Boucher (A Review By David Atkinson)

Melville House Press

208 pgs, $11.95

Having been born in the middle seventies to parents who owned a VW Beetle, I admit to being confused when I first picked up How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher.  I immediately thought of the virtual bible of Volkswagens by John Muir (first published in ’69 and still surviving today in a 19th edition).  Admittedly,  I never read Muir’s book, but anyone related to a Beetle aficionado at that time could not help but have formed a sense of it: counterculture in car manual form, the individual and his/her Volkswagen alone together on the open road, and so on.

Clearly, Boucher has similar remembrances, though other than certain emotional impressions and a hazy reflection of certain frameworks Boucher’s book is something else entirely. For example, I certainly wouldn’t recommend using it to actually attempt to fix a Volkswagen.  Instead, evoking just enough of the old Muir book as a vehicle to kindle reminiscence, this novel revs with the heartwarming story of a man struggling through life while dealing with the death of his father and trying to raise his son.

Of course, this is not as straighforward as it seems.  For example, his son is “a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle.”  When his son turns two, the narrator holds a party and orders “food from Nini’s (detective stories for the Beetle, pizza for everyone else).”  When the “pizza/stories took longer to arrive than” the narrator expected, “the kids started playing a game—Red Rover…with pieces of cake as the reward.  And the VW kept winning, because of his size.”  The narrator sees his son “pointing his finger in his friend Ted’s face and singing the Queen song ‘We Are the Champions.’  Then the Volkswagen ran over to the picnic table and shoveled half a cake into his mouth.”

Also, the narrator’s father dies because he is assaulted

“by a Heart Attack Tree while sitting at [their] corner table at Atkins Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts (at least that’s where the farm was parked as long as anyone could remember).”  “Before” the narrator’s father “could move or do anything,…the Tree attacked—slamming his fist through the glass and into” the narrator’s “father’s chest and pulling all of the stories out of his heart.”

And then, with the narrator’s “father’s body still stuck to his hand, the Tree trudged through the broken glass, into the store, behind the counter and into the kitchen.  He shifted the farm into first geat and drove it away.”

Obviously, there is serious imagining going on in this book.  After all, did you know that “many Volkswagens won’t allow strangers to even touch them[?]”  That “[t]hey’ll attack for almost any reason, even if they know a person is only trying to help or repair them[?]”  I didn’t, but I do now.

Strange imagination isn’t the only fun to be had in this book either.  Words in the prose are shifted in interesting ways.  Think of the phrase ‘time is money.’  Imagine the two literally switched, such as when the narrator looks “deep into [his] wallet” and sees “four hours balled up in the corner.”  Objects are sometimes living things.  Ever try to fix something with a tool that seems to have a will of it’s own?  Try having a racket that is “overly chatty all afternoon—telling [you] about its wife, its kids, a few scrapes with the law” and then starts “to weep uncontrollably[,]” leaving you nothing to do but take “him in to a therapist.”  In short, Christopher Boucher’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is full of all kinds of crazy fun.

Now, crazy fun is all well and good.  However, some writing that goes in for that sort of thing sacrifices story.  I’ve seen books that rest their ultimate success on their strange portions, not worrying about whether the story works or not.  In other words, it just doesn’t seem to be that important.  Here, on the other hand, nothing could be further from the truth.  Toasters may do stripteases, fish may be mechanics, faith may be love (wink wink), but Boucher doesn’t cut corners and simply hope nobody pays any attention to the man behind the curtain.  To the contrary, the story is enhanced by the strangeness rather than being sacrificed to it.

When I was reading, I found myself reminded of some of my other favorite off-kilter stories.  I picked up impressions similar to those I felt when reading the fantastical mechanical detailings in Haruki Murakami’s “The Dancing Dwarf.”  I noted a kind of odd tenderness comparable to when I first hit Amelia Gray’s “Babies.”  I believed six impossible things before breakfast like when I chowed down on Etgar Keret’s “Fatso.”  I was entertained by seemingly plausible absurdity in ways that were akin to my experiences with Donald Barthelme’s “Me and Miss Mandible.”

At the same time, just as Boucher only brings to life faint impressions of Muir’s old book that were buried deep in memory, I wasn’t actually seeing Murakami or Gray or any of the others when I read How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.  Instead, I was merely reminded of them.  How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is its own creature, just as the Beetle inside the book is its own creature.

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive delivers a marvelous tale in a way that is fresh and entertaining.  Anyone who thinks writing either has to be rigidly traditional to the point of boredom or wildly experimental to the point of gibberish should check out this book.  It is a marvelous story, but also a strange and wonderful marvelous story.

~David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories and book reviews have appeared in (and/or will soon be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow Press,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “Fine Lines,” “Gently Read Literature,” and “The Rumpus.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.  He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow Press” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.~

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