A story of a family as told in chapters defined by the junkers and low riders that the alcoholic dad brings home from poker games and police auctions. There’s no Lexus. No Prius nor a sensible family SUV. This is about widebodies with tail fins, smoking tailpipes and noisy mufflers. And chrome. Lots of chrome. There’s the Green Hornet, the Black Beauty and the Red Devil.
Rorke’s novel is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. It reminds me of the people Jimmy Breslin would write about. It also reminds me of the working class Italian-American neighborhood where I grew up in northern New Jersey. Until I read this story I’d forgotten about boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king that my mom would serve to me on toast. And I had long since forgotten what a head of hair adorned with Vitalis smelled like.
The similarities go beyond such trivial things. Both Rorke’s fictional family and my real one were representative of the gender roles of the time in neighborhoods like these. The dad in Car Trouble, like so many of my friends’ fathers, was a walking time bomb. You tiptoed around them to avoid the inevitable explosion, an explosion that meant a lot of shouting and at least the threat of physical violence. These were the predecessors of today’s angry white men in MAGA hats. Part of it was the alcohol, of which there was always plenty. But it also had to do with being raised in a culture where you were supposed to be the chief provider and protector, the “king of the castle,’ yet finding yourself tied to a dead-end job or profession where you worked like a dog, didn’t really have enough and had little hope of things getting better.
Yes the women were housewives who cooked, cleaned, looked after the kids and did the laundry. But they had an even more important role. Mom was the voice of reason, the voice of sobriety, the sole source of empathy. Most often it was the mother who was chief financial advisor and banker. My dad was in his sixties when my mom died and one of the first things I had to do was teach him how to use a checkbook.
By the late 60’s things were starting to change but in neighborhoods like this it was driven more by economic need than by enlightenment. In both the Car Trouble family and mine the mom ended up as the sole breadwinner.
But back to the cars. This was not yet a seat belt era. Most of the 50’s era cruisers that found their way into the hands of Rorke’s fictional family had a bench front seat that fit three across. The middle seat was affectionately known as the “death seat.” But it had its advantages. The deluxe models had a record player stored under the dashboard and the death seat occupant had control over what 45’s to spin. You can’t really ride in widebodies like these without a little Motown in the background.
This is a great novel. You don’t have to have experienced boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king to enjoy it. It’s 400 pages that reads like 150. I hated to see it end.
And in the end Nicky, the oldest child and only boy in a family of five children, helps his father drive the Blue Max backwards through the Brooklyn streets. Backwards because that’s all that’s left of the transmission. When they find a sufficiently secluded spot, dad, who the other family members refer to as Himself, takes out the pliers, destroys the plate with the VIN number, removes the license plates and that’s a wrap. (The novel doesn’t really end this way but you don’t want me to spoil it, do you?)