Company Car

Company Car

5.0 1
by C.J. Hribal

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An award-winning author has created his most expansive work to date–a captivating family epic, a novel that moves effortlessly from past to present on its journey to the truth of how we grow out of, away from, and into our parents.

“Are we there yet?” It’s the time-honored question of kids on a long family car trip–and Emil Czabek&


An award-winning author has created his most expansive work to date–a captivating family epic, a novel that moves effortlessly from past to present on its journey to the truth of how we grow out of, away from, and into our parents.

“Are we there yet?” It’s the time-honored question of kids on a long family car trip–and Emil Czabek’s children are no exception. Yet Em asks himself the same thing as the family travels to celebrate his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, and he wonders if he has escaped their wonderfully bad example.

The midwestern drive is Em’s occasion to recall the Czabek clan’s amazing odyssey, one that sprawls through the second half of the twentieth century. It begins with his parents’ wedding on the TV show It’s Your Marriage, and careens from a suburban house built sideways by a drunken contractor to a farm meant to shelter the Czabeks from a country coming apart. It is the story of Em’s father, Wally–diligent, distant, hard-drinking–and his attempts to please, protect, or simply placate his nervous, restless, and sensual wife, Susan, all in plain sight of the children they can’t seem to stop having.

As the tumultuous decades merge in his mind like the cars on the highway, Em must decide whether he should take away his parents’ autonomy and place them in the Heartland Home for the Elders. Beside him, his wife, Dorie, a woman who has run both a triathlon and for public office, makes him question what he’s inherited and whether he himself has become the responsible spouse of a drifting partner–especially since she’s packing a diaphragm and he’s had a vasectomy.

Wildly comic and wrenchingly poignant, The Company Car is a special achievement, a book that drives through territory John Irving and Jonathan Franzen have made popular to arrive at a stunning destination all its own.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Two generations of the Czabeks-Wally, Susan and their seven kids-make for a nuanced study of the American family and the mysteries of marriage in this dense, heartfelt saga. With Wally and Susan's son Emil narrating, Hribal (The Clouds of Memphis) takes readers on a 50-year quest for the American dream, from a goofy televised postwar marriage ceremony through the Czabeks' flight in the 1960s from suburban Chicago to a 99-acre Wisconsin farm ("We had gone bucolic by the time the decade really exploded") to a 50th-anniversary gathering that serves as a crucible for decades of accumulated family conflict. The Czabeks persevere through one misadventure after another; Wally pursues get-rich-quick schemes and drowns his demons in drink while each family member seeks his or her own private ways to cope with life's contradictions. Hribal chronicles the lives of this sprawling, chaotic cast of characters with a level of minutiae that tends to lessen the narrative's sense of urgency, but he courageously doesn't stint in his efforts to answer the big questions he poses, even though we may have guessed some of the answers ourselves. Agent, Nat Sobel. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his latest novel, award winner Hribal (The Clouds in Memphis) writes in the persona of Emcee Czabek, the third of seven children born to Wally and Susan Czabek. As Emcee drives his family to his parents' 50th-wedding-anniversary celebration, he relates the story of their marriage, his own upbringing, and the personalities and experiences of his six siblings. Whether humorous or tragic, the events often serve to highlight his mother's reluctant acquiescence to his father's money-making schemes and dreams. As Emcee delves more deeply into his parents' psyches, he begins to confront his own marital problems with his restless second wife, Dorie. With the friends and neighbors of the Czabek family, Hribal has created a large cast of captivating characters, and it's intriguing to see him examine societal trends from a baby-boomer perspective by tracing a marriage spanning the past half century in America. While slow to reach its final conclusion, the novel does offer a worthwhile exploration of marital relationships and family life. Recommended for larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A big-hearted tale recalls the interconnected lives of two generations of a Midwestern family, by Wisconsin author Hribal (The Clouds in Memphis, 2000, etc.). As it opens, narrator Emil ("Emcee") Czabek, a middle-aged bookseller, is en route with wife Dorie and their three kids to join Emcee's seven siblings and their families for the elder Czabeks' 50th wedding anniversary-perhaps also the occasion of arranging to place honorees Wally and Susan Marie in a nursing home. The novel quickly becomes two stories: that of Emil's seemingly endangered marriage to free-spirited (possibly adulterous) Dorie, and the raucous history of Wally and Susan, their progeny, their dreams and failures: above all, their perseverance, through Wally's Coast Guard and Navy service, career as a traveling salesman, love for reassuring cliches and harebrained moneymaking schemes; Susan Marie's intermittently hysterical, eventually stoical reactions to her handsome, charming husband's grandiose excesses-and the paradoxical legacy of hopefulness and endurance they pass on, against all odds, to their scattered brood. There's a lavish abundance of comic detail in Hribal's seemingly autobiographical tale: "The Kaopectate Wars" brought on by shared childhood illnesses; the agony of installing an aboveground pool; a notorious Halloween party that precipitates the Czabeks' move from the Chicago suburbs to a moribund Wisconsin "farm"; "the great rat hunt of 1967" and other crop-related disasters-and, through it all, the lesson incarnated by the impulsive, imperfectly human Czabeks: "We are weak everywhere. We make mistakes, and . . . our loved ones make accommodations." The Company Car (so named for Wally's pride in theemblem of his breadwinner-hood) sputters, stalls and retravels the same ground redundantly. But Wally and Susan Marie are generously imagined characters, and few readers will regret the time spent in their fractious company. As flawed as real life, and every bit as absorbing.
From the Publisher
“Ten pages into The Company Car, you know you’re in the hands of a masterful storyteller. C. J. Hribal’s characters are as real as anyone we know in ‘real life,’ and their story is the story of America on the brink of monumental change. The canvas is broad, the sights and sounds true, the vision both hilarious and heartbreaking.”

The Company Car is a wonderful novel. I lost track of the number of times I laughed out loud. C. J. Hribal writes with grace and unerring wit in this celebration of the American family.”
ROBERT BOSWELL, author of Century’s Son

“As with Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall, The Company Car illuminates through one microscopically detailed family portrait the history of a whole era in the heartland. This is a strong, whole-hearted, and often very funny novel.”
ANDREA BARRETT, author of Ship Fever

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

1. A Day Late and a Dollar Short

There are times on this drive when I have been tempted to turn to Dorie and shout, “Our parents have been dead for years! Our father died while piloting a La-Z-Boy into oblivion, the remote still warm in his fingers! Our mother died in her bedroom; her last whispered words being ‘More! More!’ That’s what happened to our parents! Not this! Not this!”

But it’s Dorie’s parents who have been dead for years. Mine are about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, hence the drive up from Milwaukee with our kids. (I say “ours” although Dorie had already had Woolie and was pregnant with Henry when we met—a complicated story I needn’t go into here.)

I don’t shout out my denials, though, because (a) Dorie would point out my pronoun error, as well as the insensitivity of my having made it; and (b) Dorie, in her infinite wisdom, would simply shake her head and say, “Get a grip, Ace. What’s the real issue here?”

In defense of the pronoun thing: because our parents beat it into our heads when we were younger, I have always thought of my siblings and myself as one unit, however scattered we’ve become. And it’s not as though Dorie doesn’t appreciate my referring to our three kids as “our three kids.” But she’s right about the other. The real issue here is that it has become increasingly evident to my siblings and myself that our parents may no longer be able to care for themselves. Besides celebrating our parents’ fifty years together, my six sibs and I are going to be talking about the disposition of our parents’ future. “The disposition of our parents’ future”—I don’t need Dorie calling me Ace again to know how ridiculous that sounds. The debate comes down to this: Should our parents, for their own good, be installed in the Heartland Home for the Elders? If I had a nickel for every flip-flop I’ve had over that I’d be a wealthy man. But it’s not often we’re all together in one place for a powwow, as our brother Ike would say, and this is not a question you answer by phone or e-mail. So along with the champagne and celebration, we have business to discuss. Messy business. Cloudy business. But then, when in our family have things been other than messy and cloudy?

As our father would say, “We shall see what we shall see.” He could say a lot of other things, too: “Dollars to donuts,” “Par for the course,” “That’ll put hair between your toes,” and “You know what they do with horses, don’t you?” Though given the situation, I don’t know that he’d utter that last one.

“Relax, Em,” Dorie says. “Don’t get your undies in a bundle. It’s not you deciding all on your lonesome. Let the Round Table do its work. No use feeling guilty over something you haven’t done yet.”

“What about the things I have done?”

She brings my hand to her lips and bites my knuckle. “I’ll be the judge of that, sweetie.”

Sophie, our youngest, pipes up from the wayback, “Are we there yet?” She’ll ask this question at roughly three-minute intervals for the rest of the trip. My answer should be “No, not by a long shot,” but right at that moment I’m thinking about how I called where Sophie is sitting “the wayback.” Only, Mercury Villagers do not have waybacks. They have third seats, rear seats, or cargo areas, but not waybacks. Only station wagons—a species of family travel now largely extinct—have waybacks.

“What’s up, Ace?” Dorie asks. “You’ve got one of your thousand-mile stares going.”

I tell her about the wayback—those rear-facing seats where my siblings and I spent so much time on long family trips, though we had to fight each other for the right to sit there. We called it that because “Peabody’s Improbable History” (the show about a dog and his boy housed inside Rocky and His Friends, aka the Rocky and Bullwinkle show), featured a time machine called the “Wayback.” Looking out at every place we’d just been, we thought it worked like that for us, too. Which is how it’s working for me on this drive back up to our parents’.

Dorie twists the cap off a water bottle. A modern woman, she likes to stay hydrated. “Tell me a story,” she says, grinning. “Tell me a story from way back.”

I know what she wants. Something from our childhood, something light, like the time Wally Jr. got his head stuck in the porch railing and we had to call the fire department to get him out, or the time Wally Jr. and Ike went windshield-surfing buck naked over the Lake Butte des Morts Bridge, or Cinderella mooning over our mother’s bras, the fancy ones we found in our mom’s underwear drawer, bras Cinderella was destined never to fill, or how Ike managed to become a Native American, or why Wally Jr. is our lightbulb in a hailstorm.

What she doesn’t want is the only story I want to tell. It’s our parents’ favorite story, though I’ve never heard them tell it. Not all at one time, anyway. Dorie has heard it in bits and pieces over the years—straight from the horse’s mouth, in all its convoluted permutations—and she’s tired of it. Tired of the bits and pieces themselves, tired of the way the story runs up cul-de-sacs and dead ends because one of the tellers ain’t so hot a storyteller anymore and the other cuts the first one off just as he’s revving his engines to take us all down another memory cul-de-sac.

But then I’m not telling the story just for her. With our own marriage foundering, I know this is the story that someday I want our children to hear—a coherent story about things lasting, goddammit. Ours is not one of those “and they lived happily ever after” tales you’d like to tell your children. Our parents’ wedding and marriage, though—that’s a different story entirely.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

C. J. HRIBAL is the author of The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Award in Short Fiction, Matty’s Heart, and American Beauty. He edited and wrote the introduction for The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World. Hribal received his M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied under Tobias Wolff and the late Raymond Carver. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. A professor of English at Marquette University and a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College M.F.A. Program for Writers, he lives with his wife and three children in Milwaukee.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Company Car 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Emil Czabek is coming home to celebrate with his six siblings the fiftieth anniversary of their parents. As he travels to the gala, Emil thinks back over the five decades together of Wally and Susan and prays he never ends up like them though his gut tells him he is a chip off the old block................... Emil reflects on his parents¿ marriage on the It¿s Your Marriage TV show to fleeing Chicago for the suburbs and fleeing the burbs for a Wisconsin farm. He thinks of all the failed get rich schemes that dad tried between children and how he always tried to protect his family, albeit fumbling at his efforts. Emil ponders if he is as big a bungler as his father was as he considers what to do about his aging parents and contemplates whether his spouse cheats on him between her triathlon events................. The family gathering for a special event makes for a fine drama that uses internal and external perspectives to provide the audience a deep look at an extended family especially the core parents and siblings through Emil¿s filter. Emil is a terrific narrator who not only sheds light on his family, but his relationship with his wife as he sees things. At times the baseball size starting team can become overwhelming to keep score of especially when spouses and grandchildren come off the bench, but readers who appreciate an insightful character study that provides an interesting fifty year viewpoint with enjoy this perceptive tale................ Harriet Klausner