Huffpost Books
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dave Astor Headshot

Cars Can Help Drive the Plots of Novels

Posted: Updated:
Print

In literature, sometimes a car is just a car. But sometimes it's a "vehicle" for authors to write about independence, loneliness, progress, sex, death, wealth, poverty and more.

Whether or not book-based cars are weighted with symbolism, most of us certainly relate to driving. So I'd like to steer you to some novels in which cars are important "characters," and then hear about your favorite fictional works that feature those contraptions that are often On the Road.

Speaking of Jack Kerouac's novel, some cars in literature are used to search (futilely or otherwise) for freedom and/or pleasure, and can speak to characters' restlessness, aimlessness and/or discontent.

That's sort of the case in Paul Auster's The Music of Chance (which I read this month after it was recommended by commenters JoeyDee2 and Brian Bess). Protagonist Jim Nashe spends the first part of the novel endlessly crisscrossing the U.S. in a car after his wife leaves him. The ex-firefighter, who finances his marathon road trip with an unexpected inheritance, eventually ends up involved in a high-stakes poker game at the mansion of two eccentric/heartless rich guys. Then things get really weird before the novel concludes with (wait for it!) one more car ride.

There's another fateful auto scene -- though not at the end of the book -- in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. It's a car chase that features Calliope's dad Milton driving too fast on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Canada.

Motor vehicles also figure prominently in Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, with successful automaker Eugene Morgan representing turn-of-the-20th-century progress while Major Amberson and his dwindling fortune represent the vanishing horse-and-buggy age. New money vs. old money and all that.

Tarkington contemporary L.M. Montgomery offers a scene in The Blue Castle of Valancy Stirling sharing an exuberant car ride with "misfit" Barney Snaith. Many people in their straitlaced town are suspicious of Barney, but Valancy finds him interesting -- so the car ride is a symbol of Valancy's break from the conventions of her place, time and family.

Novels of the Montgomery-Tarkington era were usually subtle about sex, but that's not the case with many books of recent decades. For instance, there's a scene in Ken Grimwood's time-travel novel Replay that shows how cars can potentially be bedrooms on wheels.

Speaking of time travel, there's a great section of Jack Finney's Time and Again in which Simon accompanies Julia from her present (1880s) to his present (around 1970), and Julia is of course stunned by the experience of riding in a motor vehicle.

Readers are the ones who might be stunned as they peruse Charles Dickinson's The Widows' Adventures, a novel starring two women on a road trip. The one doing the driving is ... blind!

Then there are supernatural thrills in car-oriented Stephen King novels such as Christine and From a Buick 8. The latter book includes a spooky gas station scene before various law-enforcement people enter the story.

Two memorable moments in Cormac McCathy's Suttree involve what the title character does to a police car (to avenge racist cop behavior) and what Suttree's girlfriend does to the couple's own car. And in Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection, the spurned older wife is jailed after using an auto to do a certain something to the trophy wife who "replaced" her.

Or how about that tense yet hilarious Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets scene in which J.K. Rowling has Harry and Ron travel to Hogwarts in a flying car? An auto can definitely be a "vehicle" for humor.

On a much more serious note, a car converted into a truck of sorts is how the Joads travel from drought-stricken/agribusiness-devastated Oklahoma to a hoped-for better life in California. But the reality out west for the non-rich is as dismal as the Joads' aged jalopy in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

People take long car trips for various reasons. In John Grisham's The Client, attorney Reggie Love and her beleaguered 11-year-old client Mark drive from Memphis to New Orleans to try to locate the body of a murdered U.S. senator.

What are your favorite fictional works with motor vehicle motifs?

--

Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.