Nicholson's Volkswagens: A yob named Ishmael


"Still Life with Volkswagens," by Geoff Nicholson. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. 233 pages. $21.95

Volkswagen Beetles (I had 11 of them) were smelly, slow, noisy, slow, hot in summer, cold in winter, and not only did the heaters rust out at 5,000 miles, but no defrosting capability remained. For several years, I depended on a spray can defroster, made largely of ethyl alcohol, which one sprayed on the inner windshield, repeatedly. I arrived at work stewed and developed a pounding headache by 10 o'clock. (If it hadn't been a public school, I would have been fired.) Since the gas tank was in front of you, they were deathtraps by design. The cars never actually stopped running, but they were never actually all right. Two of mine caught fire, and one dropped me on the road when the floor rotted out.

An affection for ugly, smelly, dangerous little cars is difficult to explain. It is perverse, in fact. In the '70s, Vermont Volkswagen drivers woke and bought Subarus. But in other countries, Mexico for example, Volkswagen Beetles are still in high esteem. Then there's England, ever home for stupid and irrational affections.

Mr. Nicholson, who lives in London, has written a series of novels I have not had the pleasure, if there is any, of reading. He depends heavily on all sorts of irrational affections. Not the least of which is for wandering, mad narratives told in the present tense (ready, aim . . . ). The characters are unattractive and eccentric, moody and erratic, and other attributes that, in England, seem to supplant the need for regular intellect or an improvement in plumbing and diet. The main character is a yob road warrior at times named Ishmael, and need I say more? Personally, the more I read about non-tourist England, the less I am likely to leave my tour group. This book is further proof that if you want intelligent conversation in England, or a cogent story, ask someone in a tarboosh. The plot of "Still Life with Volkswagens" seeks to discover why someone is blowing up VW Beetles willy nilly. Much too nudge-nudge, wink-wink for my mind to decipher. At times the book lurches unexpectedly from the main story, if there is one, to things that Mr. Nicholson thinks are oddly funny, like dropping back in time to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Charles Manson is celebrated as an amusing character. What? Eh? I have to admit that your reviewer found himself yearning for a career as a barber or something with a beginning, middle and end.

The problem with all this is that it is essentially nothing. It has, one presumes, an inner logic apparent to its author, but for the rest of us the secret remains one. Perhaps it should be sold as an English mystery novel. How such odd narratives, reminiscent, if you ever read them then, of '60s druggie novels, get published is certainly a mystery. Mr. Nicholson plays the part of mad genius, which has some momentary appeal. But it does not sustain a novel, even though his narrative skills are adequately clear. His habit of stopping the story to discuss his own writing process is self-indulgent and certainly uncalled for. Who on the planet cares?

The Overlook Press should have overlooked this one, and anything else that comes along in this vein. Just because they're English, doesn't mean they aren't as childish and dull as most young American writers. And now let's discuss Volkswagens some more.

Jeff Danziger, editorial cartoonist for the Christian Scienc Monitor, is the author of the novel "Rising Like the Tucson" (1992). He was also editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News.

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