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Brad Barkley's 'Alisons Automotive Repair Manual'
Charlie Dickinson reviews

St. Martin's Press, 2003, 275 pp.,
ISBN: 0-312-29138-8


Despite the title, ALISON'S AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR MANUAL is no how-to book. Rather, it's Brad Barkley's contemporary novel set in rural West Virginia where Alison Durst, midway through her thirties, loses her husband Marty in a terrible accident. She immediately abandons the home she and Marty shared. She moves in with her sister and brother-in-law, who like Alison are also childless.

For the next two years of widowhood, Alison mostly treads water in the doldrums of uncomprehended grief. As the novel opens, however, something clicks with Alison when the brother-in-law shows her an abandoned Corvette, ready for the junkyard, residing in an equally dilapidated garage. Marty had been somewhat of a pack rat, restoring things, and Alison, not finding much else in life to engage her, decides the Corvette--peeling paint, a rusting frame, a resident colony of mice--is her project car.

Certainly Brad Barkley wants us to see this particular 1976 Corvette, which many advise Alison is beyond repair and little more than an expensive excuse to keep busy, as somehow symbolic of Alison's life. The Corvette will never be as good as new, so the question is, Will it ever run again? With a dogged persistence, Alison takes on that task, never having worked on cars before in her life. To Barkley's credit, he writes a convincing account of how a mechanical neophyte could tackle such an automotive challenge. But, of course, this novel's about more than car repair: A heart needs mending too.

Barkley's eye for detail helps fashion a strong sense of place in the town of Wiley Ford. And his deft comedic touch populates Alison's world with quirky, but significant characters: a car parts salesman dispenses religious tracts, an elderly swing dancer's a walking encyclopedia of trivia, a husband resorts to magical artifice to help impregnate his wife. Moreover, quite a bit besides car repair happens in this novel.

The town pond is drained (and refilled) when a dam is replaced and the former underwater town of Colaville appears, only to submerge again. A parade is held where half the town watches the other half of the town march. Then there is a romantic interest for Alison.

Capturing Alison's heart, Max also contributes to the action in the novel because his occupation is dynamite demolition of silos, dams, and buildings. Yet Barkley writes too perceptive a novel for this to be a story of a widow who finds salvation in a sequel man. Alison doesn't really resolve her relationship with Max at book's end. Interestingly, Alison does more to resolve the conflict between Max and his dad. Still, we see Alison re-engage with life. Her heart's on the mend in ways that transcend replacing Marty.

Read ALISON'S AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR MANUAL for a well-conceived fictional exploration of grief. Barkley gives us Alison's story two years after Marty's death, enough of a remove that the gentle comedic handling of one of life's serious issues struck this reviewer as essentially right.

© Charlie Dickinson April 22nd 2003
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