An idea came to mind: a simple wish to be a person other than the person he was. The idea rose quietly; he did not move in the cot. As if it were actually possible, the idea became lucid, until he knew, in sudden disappointment, that it was not possible at all.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Theodore Weesner’s novel “The Car Thief” tells the story of a juvenile delinquent boy named Alex who grows up in blue-collar Detroit. It is often compared to “The Catcher in the Rye” because of its tone and subject matter. The story begins as Alex is stealing a car. He is caught and sent to a juvenile detention facility, where we follow his recovery and rehabilitation. We see Alex’s confusion as a product of his upbringing, as he is being raised by an alcoholic father and had a childhood that lacked stability. Stealing cars provided Alex with an unhealthy form of escapism, and allowed him to mentally be anywhere but there.
One of the most interesting things about the book is that it’s semi-autobiographical. While the author didn’t steal cars, his life paralleled Alex’s in many ways, from his family background to his later decision to join the army. I’ll admit that at first I was annoyed at the way that the book seemed to blame Alex’s upbringing for his problems. Growing up in a town that had once been focused on steel mills and coal mines, I felt like it was unfairly biased against working-class Americans, and that it enforced stereotypes rather than dispelling them. Then I remembered the time that someone stole my Dad’s truck and crashed it, causing it to burst into flames. People like Alex do occasionally pop up, but they’re not representative of the whole. Part of what made the book so compelling is that their stories are rarely told.
I didn’t like or sympathize with Alex. He’s self-centered jerk for most of the book and doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions. Mind you, Holden Caulfield is one of my favorite literary characters. I don’t mind characters who are a bit misguided or who are trying to find their place in the world. The difference is that Holden never really hurt anybody other than himself, and still cared for his sister. He wanted to protect innocence, even though he knew that it was a futile effort. Alex wasn’t like that. His relationship with his kid brother mirrored Holden’s for a while, but then he ended up blaming his brother for something that wasn’t his fault and severing their relationship. Alex was self-destructive in a way that hurt others, and it was painfully obvious all of his behaviors, covering everything from the car theft itself to his relationships with girls.
At the same time, I felt like the book contained a message of hope. Even though I couldn’t stand Alex, we could see that he isn’t all bad and that he’s searching for a way out. He wants to be a better man, he just doesn’t know how, and we can see the way that he doesn’t know about channels that exist that could have helped him. He is caught in a frustrating and powerless situation and does what he can to get away from it.
I was quite impressed by Weesner’s ability to describe a scene in perfect detail but without overdoing it. You can picture Alex quite vividly as he’s sitting in a car and smoking a cigarette as raindrops fall on the windshield. You can imagine the streets of Detroit and the milkshake bars and movie theaters, and it’s as if you’re there. Few authors that I’ve read have managed to set up a scene nearly as well as Weesner can.
Even though I didn’t like Alex, I was never in any danger of deciding to put the book down. This is one of those books where the writing made up for the fact that the story wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read an atypical coming-of-age story.