The Car Thief ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Theodore Weesner’s 1972 novel, The Car Thief, is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age story about a troubled sixteen-year-old named Alex Housman and his (what is now called) dysfunctional family. It is set in Detroit, Michigan, in the early 1960s. Alex has a younger brother named Howard, a well-intentioned but alcoholic father who works in a car factory, and a mother who is, at best, a flighty floozie who has other things on her mind than being a good mother. She leaves home, presumably to be with another man, and leaves her two sons to the questionable care of their father.
Alex Housman is plenty smart enough, but he is what you might call an underachiever and, if that isn’t bad enough, he skips school and steals cars. He doesn’t try to make money from the cars he steals; he just drives them around for a while and then ditches them. When asked why he steals cars, he doesn’t have an answer, except to say that maybe he’s only showing off. The law eventually catches up with him and he ends up in a detention home. It will be determined later in court whether or not he will be sent on to boys’ vocational school instead of being allowed to go back home.
It’s while Alex is in the detention home that he finds a kind of peace he hasn’t known before. He finds satisfaction in the menial work he is given to do, and he develops a camaraderie of sorts with some of the other inmates. When he goes back home and returns to school, he finds that nothing has changed, but only worsened. He has missed so much school that he fails all of his classes except one. He feels alienated and excluded at school. He is drawn to a girl or two but scares them away with his unexplainable behavior. He decides to steal another car.
In the meantime, Alex’s younger brother Howard has gone to live with their mother, leaving Alex alone with his father. It’s when Alex goes to visit Howard on a summer weekend that he uncovers some painful truths about his family, not only his mother and father but also about Howard.
Car Thief is a serious and well-written portrait of teenage “acting out.” Alex Housman is not a devilishly clever teen like Holden Caulfield or a privileged brat like so many teens we have seen in movies and books but a troubled boy of the working class. What is really at the root of all his problems? What will it take to free him from his compulsion to steal cars? What will it take him to keep him from ruining his life and ending up in the penitentiary? Will the decent in him prevail in the end?
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp