Robert Rorke‘s debut novel Car Trouble brings us back to 1970s Brooklyn—a pre-gentrified bastion of the working class that would not be considered fashionable for at least another 30 years. For Nicky Flynn, a Flatbush teenager from a large Irish Catholic family, the 1970s means more than the shifting social and political mores of the time. In the Flynn household, Nicky’s only concern is Himself—the drunken, occasionally abusive, old-fashioned racist he gets to call dad.
Patrick Flynn’s alcoholism defines much of Nicky’s adolescence. He, his mother, and his four sisters are hyper-aware of their father’s behavior at all times, always picking up on the way his eyes get glassy and his gait staggers slightly when he’s had a few too many, and perpetually holding back comments that might send his backhand their way. Nothing in Patrick Flynn’s life is spared the fallout from his disease. The only consistency Nicky observes in his father over the years is the slew of cars Himself brings home—one jalopy after another bought at NYPD auction. Each vehicle—one more garish and impractical than the last—provides his life with a veneer of glamour, however fleeting and marred by hardship. From Nicky’s perspective, each car is a milestone in his adolescence. New cars, new experiences. Good and bad. Terrifying and joyful.
I read the book’s back cover and initially got the impression that I wouldn’t like it. It’s a safe bet that anything to do with cars won’t be my cup of tea. Also, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a novel with this setting — a parade of muscle cars — to rely heavily, if not solely, upon nostalgia to carry the story’s coming-of-age narrative. But Rorke is a much better writer than that.
The overarching theme of the car as a symbol and unifying element of Nicky Flynn’s adolescence falls to the wayside as the novel progresses. At times I forgot about the cars as the descriptions of his father’s vehicles and the experiences he’s had in them take a back seat to the family dynamic that breathes life into Car Trouble.
As a narrator, Nicky is clear-eyed and levelheaded when recounting the tales of his youth. We see moments of compassion, rage, confusion, and fear filter through his composure, which, combined with his family’s resilience, offsets his father’s destruction.
That resilience from Nicky, his sisters, and especially his mother is the most poignant and moving part of Rorke’s novel. Despite the never-ending calamity that follows Himself like a shadow, Mrs. Flynn and the children form a protective barrier around him that is borne from love, fear, and self-preservation. If they don’t keep moving forward, the earth will fall out from beneath them.
It is this quiet efficiency that builds the backbone of Car Trouble. Even as Nicky struggles to find himself and nurture his newfound talents, the reader cannot help but notice that, like most all teenagers, his identity is still wrapped in his family’s identity. Being a part of that efficiency is like being in a group of unsung heroes, and for better or worse, it is the springboard off which he becomes himself.
Much like Colm Tóibín‘s Brooklyn, Car Trouble is an impressive novel that captures the essence of an era without fanfare or sacrificing the craftsmanship of a good story. It is refreshing, cathartic, and thoroughly readable.