At a West Texas auto dealership, competitors vie for a brand-new pickup truck in a contest to see who can keep his or her hands on the prize for the longest time.
The inspiration here is S.R. Bindler’s 1998 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, about a car dealership which ran a similar competition. The rules are straightforward: contestants must keep at least one hand on the truck at all times except during occasional designated break periods. Whoever makes it longest wins. When readers catch up with Mojtabai’s (Autumn, 2015, etc.) fictional participants, they’re in the 65th hour of the contest, and only seven remain. Among those still woozily standing are Bev, a former addict whose Christianity has literally, it seems, saved her; Gib, who wanted to be a Marine but was turned down for giving “one or two ‘smart-ass answers’ "; and Dan and Josh, fraternal twins who resent each other so ferociously that one has changed his surname to differentiate himself from the other. Also on hand is a journalist, aptly named Trew Reade, who gives readers context but also has an intriguing back story of his own. (Written in the third person, the short chapters rotate between characters’ perspectives). Mojtabai’s challenge is to keep the narrative moving despite the fact that, for much of the novel, little happens (to the point that two of the chapters are subtitled “Nothing is Happening”). More often than not she succeeds, in part by focusing on the characters’ acute economic anxiety (one woman’s recollection of the expenses associated with her daughter’s American Spirit doll is especially well-done). Indeed, the story here is less the contest itself than what has led the contestants to compete in the first place.
An empathetic glimpse into the lives of characters who could really use a win.