“It’s hard being a single dad — especially when your son is a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle,” says the back cover to “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” a new novel by Christopher Boucher (Melville House). However curious the book’s premise, it works a pretty well-plowed surrealist furrow, hailing back to Kafka and Gogol by way of “My Mother the Car” and “Christine.”
(If someone’s mother can be reincarnated as a 1928 jalopy, scolding her son through the radio speakers, and if a teenage boy can have a crush on a deadly Plymouth, why shouldn’t human parents spawn a Beetle? And yes, I know “My Mother the Car” was voted the second worst TV show of all time.)
Mr. Boucher taps into another tradition, that of the existential repair manual. “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” by Matthew B. Crawford, is a latter-day manifestation of a genre that includes Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” with its references to Plato as well as Buddhism.
The 1969 counter-culture touchstone “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,” from which Mr. Boucher derived his novel’s title, was itself full of spiritual wisdom. Its art, by Peter Aschwanden, was cartoonish, executed in almost an R. Crumbstyle, and it contained axioms like “Talk to the car, then shut up and listen.” When it implored “Don’t overtorque” it referred to living life as well as reinstalling bolts.
It also lent its chapter titles to those in Mr. Boucher’s novel, “Valve Adjustment” and “How Works a Heart” among them.
The 1969 book was written by the long-haired and by all accounts laid-back mechanic John Muir of Taos, N.M. It has sold more than two million copies and has cycled through many editions.
There is, believe it or not, a whole tradition of Volkswagen novels, includingGeoff Nicholson’s “Still Life With Volkswagen,” in which Hitler appears, along with an obscene model of an early Beetle.
Behind these titles resides the idea of the car as a repository of life. As Mr. Muir explained to his amateur mechanics, “The type of life your car contains differs from yours by time scale, logic level and conceptual anomalies, but it is ‘Life’ nonetheless. Its karma depends on your desire to keep it — Alive!”
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