“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.
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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.
Reading Group Guide
1. In what ways is Emmie like his father and in what ways is he like his mother? Where do you see these similarities most strongly in the novel?
2. How do Emmie’s similarities to his parents illuminate your understanding of Emmie’s relationship with his wife? What parallels exist between the two couples?
3. How did you respond to the character of Dorie, Emmie’s wife? Did you like her? Did you find her sympathetic? To what extent did
Emmie’s portrayal of his mother as the primary caretaker of the family—alone with seven children while her husband is on the road or drinking—affect your view of his wife’s resistance to assuming that role, her desire for independence and escape? To what extent did Emmie’s sympathy for his mother extend to his wife?
4. How does the Zbigniew Herbert epigraph, “It’s good what happened /
it’s good what’s going to happen / even what’s happening right now /
it’s okay,” encapsulate the novel’s themes?
5. Despite their struggles, what are the qualities that make Wally and
Susan Marie’s marriage work? Does the marriage hold together because of social mores about divorce, or out of habit or momentum,
or something more?
6. In the chapter “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” the author uses retrospective narration to allow the reader to experience Emmie’s childhood. Was this effective for you? Do you prefer one type of point of view in general? Are there other literary techniques used in the novel that you found particularly effective?
7. How is change and/or the passage of time treated in the novel? How do the various characters deal with change? Wally? Emmie? Dorie?
8. What is Emmie’s attitude toward his family story? Is he nostalgic?
Reverential? Critical? Matter-of-fact? What does the way in which he tells us the story reveal about his character? Do you have a family story? How has it affected who you are today?
9. Trace the situations in which the issue of fidelity emerges in the novel. How do questions of marital fidelity or infidelity connect with themes of loyalty, independence and personal identity in the novel?
10. What series of events bring the Czabecks to leave the suburbs? What major events and/or details stand out from their years on the farm?
What similarities exist between the two locations?
11. In the first chapter of the novel, photographs of Wally and Susan
Marie as young people are described in great detail. How do these descriptions prepare us for the stories and characters that are to come? How are they connected to the novel’s themes? Did you find these descriptions helpful?
12. Did you feel this novel was Emmie’s story primarily, or was it a bigger story?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Novel by a professor of English at Marquette University. I picked it up because it's set in a fictional town in the Fox Valley. I loved the characters and relationships but not sure about the ending. I don't always need for a story to be tied up neatly at the end, but this one left me rather confused. Hope someone else here reads it and share their thoughts.
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