Car Thiefby Theodore Weesner
Hailed by The Boston Globe as "so poignant and beautifully written, so true and painful, that one can't read it without feeling the knife's cruel blade in the heart," The Car Thief was first published to enormous popularity, and sold over half a million copies. Alex Housman is a kid who at the age of sixteen has had fourteen cars, harbors many hurts, and seems to fade into his environment while raging inside. His father is an alcoholic, losing his grip on life even as he wants the best for his son. The Car Thief explores the love Alex and his father share, in a tremendously poignant story that is filled with unusual triumphs.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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The Car Thief
By Theodore Weesner
Astor + Blue Editions LLCCopyright © 2012 Theodore Weesner
All rights reserved.
Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a '59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car's heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.
The storm, the falling snow, had come early to Michigan's Thumb, for it was not yet November. The previous day had been predictably autumn, drizzling steadily, leaves still hanging apple-colored overhead among the city's black wires. But by evening a chilling breeze had begun moving through the city, blowing over the wide by-passes and elevated freeways. Now in the morning the snow-covering was overall. It was four or five inches deep, as wet as a blanket soaked in water, as gray and full in the sky as smoke from the city's concentrations of automobile factories.
A cigarette Alex had not wanted so early in the morning was wedged in the teeth of the ashtray drawer. He could not remember having lighted it, and he thought about snuffing it out but made no move to do so. The dry smoke reached over the dashboard like a girl's hair in water. Picking up the cigarette, discovering either weakness or nervousness in his fingers, he drew his lungs full and replaced it in the teeth of the drawer. The smoke burned his eyes, as if from within, and he squinted as they watered.
He drove with his back not quite touching the seat. His shoulders and arms, down to his hands on the steering wheel, kept shivering lightly. The windshield wipers slapped back and forth quietly before him, slapping the melting snow to streams trailing to the sides. The only color within the ashen storm was an occasional diamond sparkling of oncoming headlight beams. He kept shivering. For a second he looked at himself, at his maze of trouble. Immediately he felt bound to the driver's position, bound to the steering wheel and accelerator and to the view ahead through the windshield. The act of driving became tedious.
At Chevrolet Avenue, near home, near where in their apartment his father was sleeping at that moment, he turned toward downtown, entering heavy traffic. The line of cars, taillights flaring red and receding in domino lines, moved slowly. He turned on the radio, and turned the dial. No music. News. News of the storm, of traffic, of snow-removal equipment. With an outstretched arm he kept the dial moving as he drove along. Still he could not find any music. If the clock was right, it was just past eight. Unable to find music, he desired it all the more, as if on its sensations he might float away from the tediousness of driving.
He drove on. The cars before him were moving as carefully as ships in fog. Less carefully, he followed. He glanced at his rear-view mirror and saw the headlights of a car close behind. Raising a little higher in the seat, he glanced at his face in the dark mirror. He settled and returned his fingers to the radio dial. He searched again for music. He had been surprised at the anger and fear he had seen on his face, but he knew of nothing to do about it. He knew of nothing to do but to keep driving.
At last, at a point where the slow trainline of cars overlapped a sidestreet, he suddenly spun the steering wheel and nosed the Buick from the line. He pressed the accelerator and the rear of the heavy car came sliding sideways, trying to catch pavement, and catching, burned a brief squeal, squirting momentary rainbows of slush.
He began driving slowly. He turned corners here and there. He had no plan now of going anywhere, nor was he much aware that he had no plan. He turned into a driveway once to turn around, but backing out again, in a confusion of changing his mind, he continued the same way. The tediousness of driving kept building in him. It was as if the car held only a cup of gasoline but would not stop rolling on and on.
He turned the radio dial again. He found music now but it was too thin to allow him to float anywhere. Letting the dial go, he tried to escape into a fantasy. He imagined someone being sentenced to death on a challenge of no one in the crowd being willing to drive through the city at a hundred miles an hour and he was raising his hand, stepping forward. But the fantasy did not work. The ordeal of driving did not go away. As if allowing him a moment's diversion, the tediousness slipped back into him, stirring through his chest and stomach.
He saw, in time, that he was on Court Street, on an outer edge of the city. Buses were separating and gathering on the other side of the street, exhausting sprays of diesel pepper into the snow. The buses were filled with downtown office workers and high school students, perhaps a few stray and way-late factory workers. Alex imagined the bus aisles with melting snow underfoot, with books on girls' warm knees. He saw himself as if in a distant past, hanging by a loose arm, reading concave advertisements as the bus swayed along.
Still the tediousness of driving did not go away. The pressure kept growing until he felt it in his jaws, and he began losing his strength of grip on the steering wheel. His stomach was drawing tighter. It was a pressure, an anguish, which had overtaken him before, but he did not think of that, nor very clearly of anything. He closed his eyes against the feeling and opened them. His jaws felt chilled. He removed his foot from the accelerator, and as the sensation was seizing him, he slammed his palms against the steering wheel, jarring it, as if a violent striking there might cancel an explosion elsewhere.
No explosion came. In only a moment, coasting almost to a stop, the feeling turned from its peak and began to ease. He guided the car toward the curb, where it rolled to a stop in the deeper snow. Pushing a chrome tab, he hummed the window down. He realized how hot and dry the car had become. He turned his head to the open space for better air. The snow falling by and the sharp moist air were refreshing. When he had rested a moment and his stomach and breathing were closer to normal, he pressed the accelerator lightly, not to spin the wheels, and drove on again. He gave little thought to what had happened. Shivering, feeling chilled once more, he pushed the tab and the window rose beside him.
At a red light, turning a corner onto Court Street in front of him, was a black police cruiser. Two uniformed policemen were in the front seat, and Alex's eyes and the eyes of the driver glanced at each other. Alex looked away, as if casually. His heart seemed to pause. He felt the body of the cruiser pass before him and beside him, as long as a submarine. His eyes and the eyes of the driver had spoken to each other. He wondered how the policeman could not have helped seeing that he was guilty. When the light changed, he pulled away carefully. He did not look back.
After a moment he had still not looked back. Always before when he saw a police car he used both mirrors, moved little more than his eyes, in case the cruiser's taillights flared and he had to go. Now he imagined the cruiser U-turning to come after him, quickly this moment approaching the side of the Buick. But checking his mirror, he saw an empty snow-blown street. He felt disappointed. For a moment, only a moment, he felt a fear of never being caught.
He pressed the accelerator, and the heavy Buick moved out faster. He had switched license plates the first night he took the Buick, but he had been driving it ten or twelve days now, too long, he knew, to keep a car so easily identified. He knew he should trade the Buick for a Chevrolet, if only to save on gas money. He knew it every day, but he did not trade it. His father left him a dollar bill on their kitchen table each morning for his lunch and bus fare, and he suffered through giving up the dollar—for gas, never oil—as he suffered through other things he had given up, other things he was leaving undone.
A moment later, for the first time, he had a notion of something pleasant lying at the end of the Buick's inevitable road. Perhaps it was a notion that the Buick was going to an inevitable end. At other times on the thought of where he was going, the seizure began in his stomach and he would steel himself as if to have his toes or fingers axed off. Now he felt a relaxation, a promise of rest, of sleep.
He had the radio dial going again, and hearing a voice say, "Here comes a big hit from last year," he centered the dial on the song's tone, and raised the volume, and removed his hand. The music came over the speaker and he hummed along.
I fall to pieces
Each time I see you again
I fall to pieces ...
The music filled the dark interior of the car. Within a fantasy, within a complicated response to the song—it was one, like many others, that his father had played deep into past alcoholic nights—Alex imagined someone, some young girl, being sentenced to death on a challenge of no one in the crowd knowing the exact words to the song, and he was raising his hand, reaching out his hand and stepping forward.
He was floating now, lightly delivering the words.
The Buick moved along, sheet-spraying from both sides like a motorboat. As if by habit, Alex was driving in the direction of Shiawassee, a small town where he knew a girl named Eugenia Rodgers. He was doing forty through the slushy snow, sliding to the side occasionally when the rear wheels seemed to miss catching. The cars across the median, moving toward the city, were doing no more than twenty or twenty-five, their headlights approaching gradually in the storm, one after another. Other days, driving on the divided highway at off hours, he had cruised at eighty or ninety, sometimes flooring the accelerator for a mile or two, raising the speedometer to a buoyant hundred and four, five, six miles an hour. He was fairly calm in those moments, more frightened in the aftermath than in the moment itself. He did not like driving fast. He had no idea why he did it, because he liked to do things different from others. He slowed down now, to thirty-five, to a careful thirty.
His brother, Howard, also lived in this direction. Howard, who was three years younger, lived with their mother and her second husband some twenty-five miles from the city where they operated a lakeside tavern. Alex was thinking of Howard now, trying to call up images of him, trying to make the images stand still as he drove. What would Howard think if he saw him in the Buick? The thought of seeing Howard, of actually seeing him, made Alex shudder.
He leaned closer over the steering wheel, to concentrate on the on-again, off-again view presented by the wipers. In the weeks that he had been driving to Shiawassee he had thought of Howard a few times, but he had never considered going there, to Lake Nepinsing. Nor did he plan on going there now. He had not seen Howard since an August day, three years before, when their mother, a stranger—it was her first visit in five or six years—came and took Howard away in her car, carrying his possessions and clothes in cardboard boxes. It was a miserable time to recall, and Alex looked away from thinking about it.
He thought of Eugenia Rodgers. She was his age, sixteen, although he had told her he was nineteen. Nineteen seemed a proud age to his mind; sixteen possessed no such quality. He had met Eugenia, or picked her up, several weeks before, and now, even if it was no more than nine or nine-thirty and she would be in school, her town and her country school were a place to drive to, rather than nowhere.
He had been driving to the country schools since September. He had discovered the first one by accident, merely driving one day when he should have been in his own school; thereafter he searched them out intentionally. In easy fantasies, imagining he was the owner of the car, he drove around the corners and fronts of the strange schools during their lunch hours, to let himself be seen. Riding a coppertone stallion. He returned to one school or another for several days running, picking out a girl and looking for her, and partially following her, almost never speaking or approaching. Then, frightened by the 4-H football-type boys in threes and fours who always began to stare at him and say things to each other, he went on to another school, to Flushing and Linden and Grand Blanc and Atlas and Montrose. They were schools only an eighth or tenth the size of his city high school—two or three hundred students to three thousand—but there had been a wonder and excitement those fall days of discovering that the students were, incredibly, always fifteen and sixteen and seventeen, with recognizable bodies and backs and postures, except, when they turned, for their faces, which were unknown and unknowing. He drove among them and walked among them. He intentionally parked his Chevrolet Bel Air or his Buick Riviera under their eyes, left the car and re-entered the car under their eyes. He was able to see himself in these moments as he imagined he was seen by them, as a figure from a movie, a stranger, some newcomer come to town, some new cock of the walk with a new car, with a plume of city hair.
Twenty miles from the city he took the ramp off the highway and continued right on the road to Shiawassee. He passed the side road down which Eugenia Rodgers lived, down which she had walked several times to meet him, for she was not allowed to have boys pick her up at her house. After another mile or so he came into Shiawassee. It was a town of five or six blocks of stores, with a movie theater, with new parking meters, the street-lights lighted today under the dark sky. He drove past the high school. It was on Main Street, set back from the street, with a couple of dairy bars directly opposite. The two floors of windows in the brick school building were lighted, and looked warm inside, and as he drove by, slowly, he saw a woman teacher's back close to a window on the second floor. He turned a corner, to park where he always parked to wait for Eugenia. He did not know what he was going to do and did not think much about it; it was not a new problem. He buttoned his coat as he walked along through the slush, aiming for one of the eating places.
If he saw Eugenia he might apologize, after a fashion. He had picked her up two days before, during her lunch hour, and when they drove into the country, to a lake, and the lunch hour was ending, he had refused to take her back. It had been autumn then, two days ago. They had gone to a lakeside park which was deserted in October. She wanted to go back, because if she missed again, the teacher was going to call her mother again, and her mother, who had remarried not long ago, was going to confine her. But he had refused to take her back, even when she begged, even when she let him feel her breasts, even when she became angry and started walking. He followed her with the car, and stopped before her on the shoulder of the road, watching her through the rearview mirror as she bent forward to begin running, pressing the accelerator as she came close. He convinced her twice more that he was stopping to pick her up, and left her both times. The next time he stopped, she walked past the car and did not look at him, and he let her walk perhaps a quarter of a mile before he went after her again. When she finally got into the car, it was nearly two o'clock. She sat still and said nothing, and he looked at her now and then as he drove. In town, when he stopped at a corner, she left the car without looking at him and he had not seen her since. He felt like a fool, remembering, but he knew that if he told her some story, that he had killed someone, had hit them with the car, or that he had killed his father, she would listen and would not believe him, but would, in her way, forgive him.
Excerpted from The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner. Copyright © 2012 Theodore Weesner. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions LLC.
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Meet the Author
The late, great, Theodore (Ted) Weesner died in 2015. Known as the ‘Writer’s writer’ by the larger literary community, his novels and short works were published to great critical acclaim.
Born in Flint, Michigan, to an alcoholic father and teenage mother who abandoned him aged one, he spent a large part of his childhood in an unofficial foster home of an immobile woman of over five hundred pounds. This, however, gave him and his elder brother, Jack, a degree of freedom to explore and have a wide variety of childhood adventures. He nevertheless became introspective as a teenager, with a rebellious streak, which led to him not graduating from high school and also becoming involved in petty crime. Eventually returning to the care of his father, he finally took off on his own when he lied about his age and joined the Army aged seventeen.
It was the Army that finally had the influence previously lacking in Weesner’s life, and whist serving he earned a high school equivalency diploma, which on leaving allowed him to gain a place at Michigan State University and then an M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
His experiences in the Army also provided material for two of his later books, and others gained from his many years of teaching at the University of New Hampshire, and later Emerson College. Put together with his earlier life experiences, ample material was available to provide a background for his plots, once he had honed his writing skills, and his works never lost their air of reality and his inherent understanding of human behaviour.
His first novel, ‘The Car Thief’ was published in 1972 after excerpts had appeared in ‘The New Yorker’, ‘Esquire’ and ‘The Atlantic Monthly’. It was a coming-of-age tale that critics found ‘original, perspicacious and tender’. Joseph McElroy, in ‘The New York Times Book Review’, referred to it as ‘a story so modestly precise and so movingly inevitable that before I knew what was happening to me I felt in the grip of some kind of thriller’. In his obituary of Weesner, published in the ‘New York Times’ in June 2015, Bruce Weber stated that ‘like many a critically appreciated book …. it faded rather quickly from view. But it became famous in literary circles as a forgotten gem’. It has since had a second life, being re-published twice more and continues to grip readers of a new generation as well as remaining popular with those who were its contemporaries.
Again, Weesner’s later work did not always enjoy the immediate commercial success that might be expected of critically acclaimed work – to the sorrow of his fellow writers, and recognised by Weesner himself, who was acutely aware of the ‘neglected writer’ label – despite such plaudits as that of the novelist Stewart O’Nan, when speaking of ‘The True Detective’, and calling it ‘one of the great, great American novels’. This could be because his particular genre became crowded at the time of his writing, often by lesser authors who nonetheless achieved the publicity needed to produce success.
Indeed, as is the case with many great writers, an enhanced and wider appreciation of Theodore Weesner’s catalogue will undoubtedly grow following his departure from the scene.
His short works have previously been published in the ‘New Yorker’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Saturday Evening Post’, ‘Atlantic Monthly’ and ‘Best American Short Stories’. Likewise, his novels appeared in the ‘New York Times’, ‘The Washington Post’, ‘Harper’s’, ‘The Boston Globe’, ‘USA Today’, ‘The Chicago Tribune’, and ‘The Los Angeles Times’.
During his lifetime Weesner received the ‘New Hampshire Literary Award’ for Lifetime Achievement, whilst ‘The Car Thief’ won for him the ‘Great Lakes Writers Prize’, and ‘The True Detective’ was cited in 1987 by the American Library Association as a notable book of that year. He was also the recipient of ‘Guggenheim’ and ‘National Endowment for the Humanities’ awards.
A perfectionist, Theodore Weesner did meticulous research, and was never afraid of going back over and re-writing his work before publication, believing in the maxim ‘the great novel isn't written, it's rewritten’.
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