When spring approaches, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of cars, girls and warm summer nights, especially in Frostburg, a town of 8,000 nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains of western Maryland, where Brad Barkley lives.
In Barkley's case, however, these are not merely blossom-inspired reveries but the chief ingredients of his second novel, Alison's Automotive Repair Manual.
It is safe to say they have never been combined in quite this way before.
The premise of Barkley's novel is both surprisingly simple and utterly irresistible: Alison Durst, a 30-ish college history professor who lost her husband in an accident two years before, takes on the seemingly impossible task of restoring a 1976 Corvette rusting away in her sister's garage. What at first appears to family and friends as yet another desperate attempt to avoid getting on with her life turns instead into a funny, poignant and life-affirming by-the-book restoration of the soul. Think Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as written by Wally Lamb or Fannie Flagg, and you're in the right repair shop.
It happens that Barkley, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native who teaches creative writing at Frostburg State University in Maryland, is handy with cars.
"Well, I'm semi-handy," he amends. "I've been kind of a gear-head since high school and have known some interesting cars along the way. It was a lot out of necessity and just being broke. I had a '64 Mustang, a '72 Camaro, an old VW bug. Right now, I have a '66 MGB; it's cheap and easy to work on. I'm not much for hobbies but I like getting my hands dirty with cars." He is also one of those novelists who finds inspiration in the oddest places, oftentimes unaware of how an experience will work into his fiction until it appears on the page.
His own urge to tinker with cars led in a roundabout way to Alison's obsession. One day his sister, who lives in Tenafly, New Jersey, casually mentioned that she had a '76 Corvette rusting away in her garage and offered it to Barkley. He and a friend made the eight-hour trip across the state in a pickup to retrieve his treasure.
"It was very much like Alison's car—the body doesn't rust because it's fiberglass, but underneath it was a solid block of rust," he recalls. "We even hooked up a steel cable to a winch and tried to winch it out of the garage and we snapped the cable. It just would not budge. So 14 hours later, my friend and I got home with no car and I just had to give it up. It was a horrible day but I started thinking a lot about that car sitting in there rusting away in that garage." Barkley, whose debut novel Money, Love was a funny, tender coming-of-age tale told from the viewpoint of the 16-year-old son of a door-to-door wheeler-dealer, was considering switching sexes and narrative tense for his sophomore effort.
"I had done a couple of short stories with female protagonists and I wanted to try it in a novel form just to see if I could pull it off, to really get to know the character," he says. "My first novel was a first-person novel and part of it was that I just like to shake things up. There's also just a lot more freedom in what you can do in third person, especially those long passages of introspection where we're inside Alison's head. Those really just won't work in first person." He drew again on his own experiences to explore Alison's grief and the stress it places on her sister, Sarah, with whom she lives.
"Part of this was, I watched my wife go through a period of grief when she lost a sister and kind of sharing the grief, but not exactly, and kind of being outside it. The typical male response is you want to fix it, and you can't; there's nothing you can do to fix it. There is a lot of frustration being the one outside the grief, just watching it. Sarah is a little bit caustic sometimes, but she's understandably frustrated, too." Barkley opens each chapter with an excerpt from the actual Haynes automotive manual, an effective organizing tool that also serves to comment on the story itself.
"It was odd how that came about because when I first started, I had the Haynes manual and was looking through it for some details about working on the car. I had never worked on a Corvette before and I wanted to get the details right for what she was doing. Then I just started seeing these phrases that seemed to be kind of odd little commentaries on what I had in mind for the book. In particular, the last one I had in there: Ã”Re-assembly is the reverse of disassembly.'" For Alison's love interest, Barkley created Max Kesler. He could have been anything: green grocer, restaurateur, cat burglar, owner of the local auto parts store. But not for this literary scavenger. Meet Max Kesler, demolition expert.
"Long ago when I was a kid in Greensboro, they took down the King Cotton Hotel, a 13-story hotel, by implosion and I was downtown on the roof of another building watching it and that left an impact it was really an indelible thing for me. I think I always had in mind to write something about implosion after seeing that, so when it came time to give Max a job, it was already sitting there so I just used it." It can easily be argued that the small town of Wiley Ford, West Virginia, which happens to be just across the Potomac River from Frostburg, is itself a central character in the novel. Its myths, town legends and outright balderdash are as important to the narrative as Alison's emotional recovery.
"A lot of times when small towns are written about, they are very sentimentalized and seem almost too cute," Barkley says. "I think there is some of that to small towns, but they can also be claustrophobic in a way. I wanted to show both in this novel. I wanted to get at what was appealing and reassuring and familiar about small-town life, but at the same time show how something that is too familiar brings this claustrophobic feeling that you just want to get away from after a while." While he admits to "an unusual set of influences" that somehow includes Eudora Welty, John Updike and Don DeLillo, Barkley maintains that his writing fits just fine, thank you, into the Southern literary tradition.
"A lot of contemporary Southern fiction, particularly short stories, you still see a lot of pickup trucks and Budweiser and shotguns and dogs, and that just wasn't my experience in the South. I guess my growing up Southern was more suburban and more shopping center than that, so my South doesn't have much in the way of shotguns and dogs in it. But I think it's just as legitimate a Southern experience." Jay Lee MacDonald is a professional writer based in Naples, Florida.