The Red Car
By Marcy Dermansky
Liveright/W.W. Norton: Oct. 11, 2016
206 pages, $24.95
The Red Car reads like the title vehicle drives: fast, unpredictable, possibly possessed, occasionally thrilling, and not quite comfortable.
With her third novel, Marcy Dermansky takes us on a wild ride with thirty-something Leah as she tries to make sense of her life. Like the narrator in Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” she is not quite sure how she got to where she is and if it’s even really her life.
Leah’s close first-person narration takes us, in short order, from a tryst with an adoring nerd at Haverford College to clerical job in Facilities Management at UC Berkeley in her mid-20’s and on to her unsatisfying marriage to an Austrian immigrant in Queens ten years later. In short, sharp sentences, Dermansky propels the reader through Leah’s idiosyncratic attitudes and actions. She seems to be living her own life yet strangely removed from its import. Everything is slightly off.
The plot kicks into high gear when she learns that her boss at Berkeley, a single older woman named Judy who had befriended and mentored Leah, has died in a car accident while driving her beloved red sports car – and that she has left the car and some money for Leah. Called back to the Bay Area for Judy’s funeral and to deal with the car, and needing a break from her emotionally manipulative husband, Leah flees her stultifying life in New York City for a “two-week vacation.”
In an episodic narrative that finds Leah trying to sort out her past – and a totally unexpected and disorienting present — in order to determine a possible future, Dermansky leads her protagonist through encounters with a lesbian living in her old San Francisco apartment, a former co-worker she has always found desirable, her old college friend who is now teaching at Stanford, and a mysteriously charming young Japanese hotel clerk in Big Sur, as well as an encounter with the worshipful guy from the prologue.
The Red Car takes us on a memorable drive as Leah attempts to figure out where she went wrong and how she ended up living the life she leads. Is it too late to change direction and change herself? If not, then how does she do that? Who or what is holding her back? Who’s driving this car anyway?
The Red Car is never less than interesting – you want to know what on earth will happen next – and Leah’s voice, with its unvarnished, stream of consciousness self-analysis, is quirky and intriguing . Her experiences and reflections present a host of thought-provoking issues. And the dialogue is razor-sharp, always smart, and often funny.
But The Red Car is also somewhat cool and aloof and not quite emotionally unfulfilling — a bit like Leah. As with many of the characters, I enjoyed spending some time with Leah, but I couldn’t see having a relationship with her; she is too consumed with trying maintain a functioning relationship with herself and the world.
Like the red car she fears, Leah is a fast, unpredictable, and possibly possessed character. In spite of my minor quibbles, this road trip is still worth taking. Just buckle up and hold on.