The Car Thief By: Theodore Weesner
Posted by Krystal Larson at 11:44 PM Saturday, June 9, 2012
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, kept afloat by the flask in his glove compartment and the open bottles 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. He cruises and steals, running from, and to, the police, compelled by reasons he frustratingly can’t put into words. 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 hurtle toward the climactic episode that a New York Times reviewer called “one of the most profoundly powerful in American fiction.”
In this rich, beautifully crafted story, Weesner accomplishes a rare feat: He’s written a transcendent piece of literature in deceptively plain language, painting a gripping portrait of a father and a son, otherwise invisible among the mundane, everyday details of life in blue collar America. A true and enduring American classic.
Sixteen year-old Alex Housman steals cars and skips school, almost hoping to get caught. His younger brother was taken away to live with his re-married mother who never bothers to see her oldest son, Alex. His alcoholic, divorced father works in a Michigan auto factory. Alex fantasizes about a girl in his high school, but ends up being stalker-like, despite her initial friendly attitude. Once he’s caught for stealing cars, Alex ends up in juvenile detention where he meets an assortment of lost, misfit boys like himself.
Weesner sets his story in 1959, and he mentions in the introduction that it is somewhat autobiographical. This is a re-release, originally published in 1972. The story reminds me of Catcher in the Rye, the novel we all had to read in high school. These two stories fall into the “read them because you have to” category for me. As a teen, I sometimes felt the undirected energy, purposeless confusion, lack of care that Weesner describes so poignantly. As a boy, Alex seems to also feel the need to punch or be punched…needing some recklessness and danger to feel alive. However, his perpetual boredom with his life also comes through. When an adviser suggests various jobs, Alex takes on a paper route and then later caddies at a country club. Having work seems to improve his outlook. The novel’s ending is not unexpected, but is uneventfully, quietly sad.
As a teen, this story would have made me uncomfortable. Some of the feelings are too close to home then. As an adult, I feel so sorry for Alex’s father – who shyly, genuinely seems to love his son. With such a broken home and so many problems, the story draws you into their world, but you don’t want to be there. If this was a neighbor, I would want to help, but I would feel the situation to be nearly hopeless. This is a novel that should be read for its insights and its great writing. Those of us who read for inspiration, excitement, and optimistic thoughts may only feel disturbed and anxious.
Three and a Half Stars
*Reviewed by Colleen*
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