Two hard-luck cases come together in West Texas over a homely but storied 1984 Buick Electra.
The latest novel by the veteran Parker (creative writing/UNC-Greensboro; The Watery Part of the World, 2011, etc.) shifts between Marcus, who’s arrived in Pinto Canyon from North Carolina, and Maria, who’s returning home from the Northwest to reconnect with her mother. Marcus has hit the skids badly, losing his family’s land through a poorly considered nature center dedicated to carnivorous plants, while Maria still bears the emotional scars of a teenage abortion and her boyfriend’s suicide. The two meet in a used-car lot, where the light blue Buick fires dreams of redemption in both. Soon, they arrange a co-ownership deal for the car. Maria’s mother is aghast that she purchased a car with a total stranger; her act will strain credulity for the reader as well. Parker means to show how inanimate objects can be surprisingly emotional touchstones in our lives; brief interludes trace the Electra’s travels through the years, from the assembly plant to car carrier to a handful of owners. These set pieces bring some welcome color and humor to the novel, particularly in the case of an Ohio schoolteacher who errs in loaning out the car for a homecoming parade. But though Parker is an assured and emotionally sensitive writer, this novel is imprisoned by its preposterous setup. Parker needs a lot of room to cycle through his protagonists’ thinking behind their irrational decision, which diminishes the impact of the novel’s closing reconciliations. As Maria works to reconnect with her estranged mother, Marcus is doing much the same with his estranged sister, and parallels like those make the novel feel too tidily structured for what strives to be a tale about surviving cruel, random fate.
Smart writing undone by an overly engineered conceit.