Harbour Books £10 (203pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Gravity's Volkswagen, By Geoff Nicholson
Friday 31 July 2009
The "high concept" pitch for Gravity's Volkswagen might be "Money meets Crash", though Geoff Nicolson is a rare writer wry enough to send up even satirists like Martin Amis and JG Ballard. The novel's narrator is Ian Blackstone, a mild and mildly disappointed English novelist who once wrote a book called Volkswagens and Velociraptors, in which a post-apocalypse VW cult turns fascist while fighting with revived dinosaurs.
Even the author feels estranged from its modest cult success. When it seems the much-optioned book will actually get turned into a movie, Ian noncommittally heads off to a trailer park in California where rage-aholic writer-director Josh Martin is screaming his way through the shoot. Next to the park is Motorhead Phil's Automotive Freak Show, where oddballs rehearse dangerous stunts.
Ian gets stuck with the job of handing over bribes to the Freak Show so they will keep their engines quiet while the cameras roll. Among the weirdos, Ian gets interested in Leezza, a mathematically-inclined daredevil whose act involves jumping a stripped-down skeleton VW over a line of other cars, and Barry, an obese obsessive trapped in his own broken-down Beetle by his girth and eager to be crushed when his is the car in Leezza's line.
Ian is adopted as a guru by the Freaks, and also finds himself caught in a power-play between the increasingly desperate director and a Brad Pitt-lite leading man who wants to take over a film which seems to be running short on velociraptors.
Between chapters, Ian – or Geoff Nicolson – provides footnote-like anecdotes and trivia about the curious history of the Volkswagen, addressing urban legends (the vengeful husband who filled a rival's love bug with fast-setting concrete), recounting bizarre anecdotes (the man who died while using his car in an elaborate sexual ritual) and testing popular assumptions like the bug's ability to float (citing an incident in Iceland involving Led Zeppelin). Though it refers to weighty tomes, this is a quick jape which makes its points perfectly – in an aside about the myth of vagina dentata, Ian notes that women's mouths have teeth too but men don't seem to have hang-ups about putting their penises in them – and gets out of the way before the soufflé collapses.
It plays with the familiar Hollywood-hack horror story and the post-apocalypse road warrior image, but turns back on the narrator – whose attitudes and career are nicely squashed, and capped with a hilarious bibliography of other Ian Blackstone books (dead-on jibes at an array of possible models). Like the VW itself, the novel is lightweight but sturdy, and covers a lot of mileage for the expenditure.
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