Car Trouble
By Robert Rorke
Harper Perennial. 405 pp. $15.99.

Reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf

When written in the first person, a novel is a sort of faux memoir. As such, you might think that the more an author hews to the truth, the greater his or her chances of creating potent literature.

Not so. However much it masquerades as a straightforward memoir, a work of fiction has a tricky mission. To be sure, unless he's meant to come across as unreliable, the narrator should relate his purported experiences in as convincing a manner as possible. But his puppetmaster, the author, must not hesitate to prune, embellish, or even subvert the truth, all for the sake of the story. Robert Rorke, TV editor at the New York Post, seems to have done precious little of this in his debut novel. Car Trouble reads like an unreconstructed memoir. As it happens, it may be just that, which would probably account for its needless length (just over 400 pages) and flabbiness.

Car Trouble is in fact about dad trouble, the kind endured by thoroughly decent and undeniably simpatico narrator/protagonist Nicky Flynn during his teen years in early 1970s Brooklyn. Given that Nicky's normally canny father is slipping into alcoholism, he's causing his family problems galore — with more to come: "Patrick Flynn, the not-so-artful dodger, was about to fall through a trapdoor and take us with him," observes Nicky.

This, more than the elder Flynn's penchant for buying a snazzy but over-the-hill automobile (something to which the book's title alludes) every time the local police department auctions off confiscated items, goes some way toward holding Car Trouble together and tempering its centrifugal tendencies.

Meanwhile, the contrast between the man's care and concern for his vehicular baby of the moment and his negligent and even abusive treatment of his loved ones is handled by Rorke in a delicate, understated manner.

Nicky, born into a rather large family (he's got four younger sisters) of Irish stock, and somewhat sheltered at his Catholic boys' school, comes of age at a fraught historical moment in the early '70s. The Vietnam War is having more and more of an impact on American society, his neighborhood's demographics are changing (blacks are moving in, whites are taking flight), and a young man taken with '60s counterculture becomes his English teacher and after-school drama instructor.

This last development exerts the greatest influence on our protagonist's life, with rehearsals for the stage play Bye Bye Birdie, in which Nicky lands a lead role, providing a desperately needed escape from his domestic turmoil. "If it wasn't for the play," he concedes, "I don't know if I would have made it. That land of make-believe was the only reality I could take."

That's because Nicky's other reality, the one that claims the largest chunk of his everyday life, is dominated by the erratic, aggressive, and ultimately self-destructive "Himself." ("That's what she called Dad when she was annoyed with him or he was being unusually stubborn," Nicky remarks of his mother, "and I guess that's where I picked it up. The shot of sarcasm made it more than a nickname and less than an insult.")

From fishing the drunkard out of a dive one night to wondering where he's ended up the next, from cringing at his spoiling for a fight with others to realizing that he and his mother and sisters are next, Nicky encounters the worst — and worsening — side of the guy.

Thanks to Rorke's sensitive portrayal, Himself sidesteps caricature. Yet as a boozehound who, sometimes purposely and other times not, torments his family in myriad ways, he can hardly lay claim to originality. Perhaps it's inevitable that this serves to vitiate the story's dramatic thrust.

It remains unclear whether Car Trouble mirrors Rorke's own experiences growing up in his native Brooklyn (where he still lives). Were it packaged as a memoir, one might view its scattered and plot-impoverished nature more charitably. Yet Car Trouble is touted as a novel, and as such takes upon itself a more considerable onus. The result proves no better than middling, with a well-drawn and appealing protagonist able only intermittently to compensate for a humdrum and overlong story.