Title: The Car Thief
Author: Theodore Weesner
Reading Level: Adult/Mature Teen
Genre: Contemporary, Classic, Drama
Theme: Coming of Age, alcoholism, child neglect
Length: 310 pages
Published: Astor + Blue Editions; 10 May 2012
Synopsis: It’s 1959. Sixteen year-old Alex Housman has just stolen his fourteenth car and frankly doesn’t know why. His divorced, working class father grinds out the night shift at the local Chevy Plant in Detroit, looking forward to the flask in his glove compartment, and the open bottles of booze in his Flint, Michigan home. Abandoned and alone, father and son struggle to express a deep love for each other, even as Alex fills his day juggling cheap thrills and a crushing depression. And then there’s Irene Shaeffer, the pretty girl in school whose admiration Alex needs like a drug in order to get by.
Broke and fighting to survive, Alex and his father face the realities of estrangement, incarceration, and even violence as their lives unfold toward the climactic episode that a New York Times reviewer called “one of the most profoundly powerful in American fiction.”
My Review: The whole process of reading and reviewing this book came about in a completely different way. I am used to getting author requests, but this is the first time I've been approached by a publicist. Serena Ainesly, head publicist for Blue Dot Literary, asked me a couple months back if I would be interested in reading and reviewing The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner. The book has been described as a modern classic and "one of the best coming of age novels of the 20th century." The book was originally published in 1972 and is making a comeback. Why? How? Well, thanks to the ever growing popularity of e-books and modern technology, classic literature now can get a fresh new look. One company that takes pride in reintroducing modern classic novels to the masses is Astor + Blue Editions. As stated on their website, their mission is to, "help bridge the divide between Traditional Publishing and the Digital Electronic Book (ebook) Revolution." And so they have begun by giving us The Car Thief in a digital format and an eye catching new cover.
Before delving into this review, I just want to state that after doing a little research, some of the events in the story may be based on the author's life. Also, I couldn't help but notice that some of the more negative reviews were given because reviewers felt that Alex, the main character, was unrelatable and one dimensional due to his lack of showing emotion. What I don't think they understand is that is exactly what the author was trying to portray in the beginning of the story. Alex is a deeply troubled teenage boy that is basically NUMB. His father is an alcoholic who goes on frequent binges that has caused his son throughout the years to fend for himself. Add the fact that his mother not only abandoned him at an early age, but later comes back to take his younger brother but not him. Does he have any other family? No. Does he have friends? No. Does he have anyone in his life that he can vent to? Absolutely not. So what does this create? A boy that keeps everything locked inside and feels completely invisible to the world around him.
That being said, there are 3 parts to this story and each are equally crucial in showing Alex's mental and emotional development over the course of this novel: before his incarceration, during his stay at the Lincoln Hotel (detention center), and after his release. Before he gets caught, Alex is quite detached from the reality going on around him. He's been skipping school, has just stolen his 14th car, and has had a falling out with a girl named Eugenia. He doesn't skip school because he thinks it is cool. He doesn't steal cars because he wants to brag about it to his friends (not that he has any to brag to). He does it because he feels numb. He does it because he is tired of being invisible. Theodore Weesner has a way with words that pulls on the heartstrings. One such example is when Alex finally does get arrested and he wonders, "if there was any talk of him at the football game over in the city, any talk of the detectives taking him from school. Probably not, for not many would know where he had been taken, and if they had, if did not much matter." This quote proves that all Alex really wants is attention. He wants people, especially his father, to notice him, to care. Stealing cars was his unconscious cry for attention, to make him FEEL something. When he realizes the cops are on their way to get him, he doesn't panic like most people do. He doesn't try to run and hide, he doesn't cry. While he is scared, he handles the arrest in a very detached way.
The second part of the book is during Alex's incarceration and his stay at the Lincoln Hotel which served as a detention center. I like to call this section his reflective period. It's during this time that Alex starts to think about his past and we get to see glimpses of his childhood. We get a sense of what his life was like before his father entered the picture, how his mother just walked out the door, his love and responsibility to his younger brother, and the little odds and ends in between. For example, Alex remembers Mrs. Komarek, an older woman who used to take care of him and his brother Howard when they used to live with their mother. When she would go to work, Mrs. Komarek would bathe them, play the radio for them, rock Howard to sleep and, "would say too many times for it to be forgotten, 'I've got a crush on you little shitasses,' after which she always laughed happily."
This reflective period also helps give Alex a sense of purpose and family. He is shocked at how kind Mr. Kelly, the man who runs the Lincoln Hotel, is to all the boys. Basically, he is fair and sympathetic, despite what they are all in for. Alex is given a routine which teaches him responsibility but also gives him a sense of purpose which is very important to children and teenagers.
This reflective time in Alex's life is not always easy for him to handle. It's during this time that he really begins to understand that there is something not quite right with his relationship with his father. As he observes the children around him, he realizes something is missing in their eyes, which makes him wonder if something is missing inside him to: "They looked less then children this close. The girls in their sack dresses, their rough and unbrushed, unshining hair, the boys in their flannel shirts, some with eyes opened, as vacant as fish, some with eyes closed. They might have been missing an eighth or a quarter or a third of something hard to name or measure. And so he had to wonder if he was missing anything himself, and knew that he could not know."
The biggest eye opener is how is father responds to him being incarcerated. Instead of being angry or concerned about what drove his son to steal cars, he almost seems proud of Alex for doing it. He says, "I'll tell you something...just between the two of us. It takes some guts to do what you did. Don't you ever do anything like that again-- but don't you ever worry about it either." There is also more evidence that his father blames the system rather then realizing his alcohol problem, mood swings, and lack of stability were the catalyst. He is more worried about Alex keeping quiet and not mentioning his drinking then actually wanting to change for his son. Alex wants to be seen by his father. As crazy as this may sound, he wanted his father to get mad, to show some sort of emotion to prove he cares.
The third and final part of the book is Alex's release from the Lincoln Hotel and how he copes on the outside and how he deals with his new perceptions of his father. It's not an easy transition. Within minutes of his release, his father is already drinking on the car ride home. His classmates shun him. He owes money to Cricket Alan, who doesn't plan to forgive or let Alex forget. As he starts back to school, I couldn't help but be proud of him for trying to pick up his grades, even when he had teachers telling him there was not much he could do so late in the school year.
Alex was really starting to find his self worth by not allowing others to bring him down as he thinks here: "He cautioned himself again against failing, against letting Cricket Alan or Mr. Gerhinger or anything, make him stumble and fall and quit." I was cheering him on, but it was quite frustrating that there was no one to show him support and to tell him he was doing a great job. He even joins the basketball team which really does help build his morale. But the quote that breaks my heart every time I read it is his reason for joining the basketball team. He thinks: "He had the desire not necessarily or entirely for any glory, nor for anything like teamwork or character building, which Mr. Gerhinger liked to define. His reason was more simple: he wanted to hear his name on the loud speaker. He wanted to hear his name enough times, neither he nor the rest of them would forget it completely." Wow. I know I keep coming back to Alex's abandonment issues, but this clearly shows how invisible he feels, as if no one in the world sees him and he wants to change that so badly.
Alex's new self confidence falters after a series of events that leads up to a somewhat predictable, yet still profound, thought provoking ending. I don't want to divulge these details because I think what I've already stated in my review will help guide those of you who decide to give The Car Thief a try. What I mean by "guide" is that once Alex starts to go off course, his car stealing addiction sort of shifts to something else. And please take note of something the author does in the the beginning and towards the end-- a sort of comparison and contrast that can be made to show how far Alex's character has come. That is as far as I am going to go with that.
So some of you may want to know why I am giving The Car Thief 4 stars instead of a perfect 5 star rating when it is quite apparent how much I enjoyed this novel. I only have a few small issues but sadly I can't get too detailed because they are connected somewhat to the ending. My one issue has to do with Alex's obsession with Irene Sheaffer. At first I wasn't sure if it was genuine interest after seeing how Alex treated Eugenia and a girl from the detention center. Sometimes we create illusions and make people bigger in our imaginations in order to cope in extreme circumstances. Irene appeared in his dreams and fantasies during his stay at the Lincoln Hotel but I was a bit puzzled by their dynamic later in the story. Again, that is all I can say in regards to that. And while this novel was filled with absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking lines that I am sure to add to my favorite quotes on goodreads, I did feel that the author used details that could have been shortened to make the novel flow quicker. There were some parts that seemed bogged down. While this didn't bother me too much, I can see why others may have felt impatient to get to the crux of the story.
I truly believe that The Car Thief lives up to being called a modern classic. While it may take a small adjustment to get used to the language and setting of the 1950's, Weesner's style of writing has charm, and his simplistic way of explaining the thoughts and feelings of his main character is heartfelt and real. Astor + Blue Editions is really creating something special for the masses. I think it is a huge contribution to the literary world to be able to take classic literature that may have been forgotten and revive it with a fresh new look and new way for it to be enjoyed in the years to come. It's been a pleasure reading and reviewing The Car Thief and I want to thank Serena Ainsely and Astor + Blue Editions for honoring me with this task and being patient for this long overdue review.