Car Trouble: A Novel
By Robert Rorke
Harper Perennial; paperback, $15.99; available this Tuesday, September 11
Once upon a time, before it became the cool spot to be and a haven for hipsters, Brooklyn was a rough-edged and industrial outer borough.
New York Post TV columnist Robert Rorke offers an intimate look at Brooklyn in the 1970s and what it meant to be a “Brooklynite” long before brownstones and Utica Avenue were regarded as prime real estate in his fierce debut novel, Car Trouble.
This will reconnect readers with cultural icons of the era such as Gil Hodges, anchor of the Brooklyn Dodgers; walk along Brighton Beach and Bedford Avenue—the longest street in Brooklyn—pre-gentrification; experience the 70s romanticism of car culture and drive Pontiacs, Buicks, Skylarks, Green Hornets; get drunk on Whiskey Sours; and commit crimes with Brooklyn gangsters.
In this action-packed family drama, Rorke also plumbs a flawed father-son relationship. between Nicky Fiynn, an aspiring young actor, and his alcoholic, enigmatic father, Patrick enjoys picking up old junkers for cheap at NYPD auctions with money earned from poker games. But
Nicky is coming-of-age in 1970s Brooklyn, riding into his sophomore year at St. Michaels, the last hurrah of the Diocesan school system. A budding young actor, Nicky is at once sensitive, resilient, exasperated, and keenly observant, especially when it comes to his father, Patrick.
Undeniably enigmatic, and coasting on vanity, charm, and desperation, “Himself” as Nicky calls his father, is given to picking up old car junkers on the cheap at NYPD auctions, each one a sputtering, tail-finned treasure subsidized by poker games.
To Patrick, these chrome glamour tanks are his obsessions and serve as repairable reminders of the past when he was young, and everything seemed new and gleaming and possible, long before he had a family.
For Nicky, each car is a milestone on his path growing up. Whether it’s a harrowing joy ride or a driving lesson, they’re unforgettable markers on his path toward an unpredictable future.
Nicky give the cars nicknames, as if they’re a character in the drama that is his family, and Rorke uses them to title sections of Car Trouble, including The Blue Max, The Black Beauty, and The Red Devil.
“I took my first driving lesson in the Black Beauty – Himself’s idea,” writes Rorke in Nicky’s voice. “We were on the way back from a nursery in the Brooklyn Terminal Market when he made an unexpected left turn on Schenectady Avenue into Holy Cross Cemetery.
“I had to ask: ‘Are we taking a shortcut?’
“He stopped the car in the middle of the road and cocked his head at me. ‘Let’s see how you do in the driver’s seat.’
“I put my hands on the dashboard. ‘What? You’re kidding, right?’
“‘I kid you not.’ He was already getting out of the car and walking around the solid black hood of the Pontiac – his latest newish old car – to the passenger side. I pulled up the button, and he opened the door. ‘Slide over.’
“I had to move the seat up. He helped me adjust the rearview mirror. This was a crazy, crazy idea. The steering wheel, worn smooth from the many hands that had turned it, felt peculiar under my fingers, and the dashboard, with its fuel gauge, speedometer, and other, mysterious dials, looked strange now that I was behind the wheel.
“The Black Beauty was a sporty, two-door tank with the improbable French name Pontiac Parisienne. The pride of Detroit, circa 1958. It had appeared in our driveway early in 1969, not long after the loud, wheezing death of the Green Hornet, when the floor of that car was rotting out and anybody in the backseat could see the asphalt beneath their feet as we drove along. Naturally, the Black Beauty came courtesy of one of those police department auctions that Dad preferred to a used-car lot or actual new-car showroom.
“We had Holy Cross to ourselves. It was May, my favorite time of year, and the cemetery couldn’t have been more beautiful. Through the windshield, the new green leaves had a bluish tint. The trees were massive, staggering – sweet gums, scarlet oaks, silver lindens, and black maples. Dad had picked a good day for this impromptu lesson – Saturday. There were no burials, no chance of running smack into a hearse or upsetting a funeral cortege.
“The engine was humming. ‘Anytime you’re ready,’ he said, reaching in his shirt pocket for a Lucky Strike. I pressed down on the accelerator and the Pontiac lurched. I took my foot off, like I had touched a hot pot. Dad clapped his hand on the steering wheel. ‘Easy,’ he said, laughing. It was good to hear him laugh. I hoped his mood would last.
“‘It figures you would have a heavy foot like your old man.’
“I took a deep breath and pressed down lightly on the gas pedal. We were moving. The car was moving – past the beds of new crocuses and daffodils blooming in front of the polished tombstones. I wouldn’t be allowed to touch a steering wheel at St. Mike’s until I was a junior, and that would be with Mr. Monroe, the bovine driver’s ed teacher, and a car full of pimply upperclassmen. Getting behind the wheel with Himself, without a learner’s permit, that was a gas. And no one knew, except the majestic melancholy stone angels watching over the dead, and the blinking pigeons perched on their heads.”
When Patrick’s love for broken-down vintage cars rivals his obsession with alcohol, he threatens his family’s stability and careens wildly out of control. Nicky, his mother, and sisters brace themselves for an inevitable sharp turn in their addled lives.
Rorke makes an impressive debut with Car Trouble, an exhilarating novel about acceptance, regret, compassion, and finding your authentic adult self amid the tumult of growing up.