Brad Barkley's 'Alisons Automotive Repair Manual'
Martin's Press, 2003, 275 pp.,
AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR MANUAL by Brad Barkley
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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