The basic premise—two young boys hotwire a car and head out across the German countryside—could easily go down the horrorshow road*. But, luckily for Mike and Tschick (and us), Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car doesn’t go that route: While their trip ends in semi-disaster, the people they meet along the way are quirkily decent and sometimes even helpful, and while the book finishes on an open-ended note, it’s a hopeful one.
If given a choice between being friendless or being boring, Mike would choose being friendless. Unfortunately for him, judging by his classmates’ apparent inability to see him, he’s both. Despite that rather sad state of affairs, when Andrej Tschichatschow—a Russian immigrant, a supposed delinquent, a boy who comes to school drunk, who wears the same clothes every day and is rumored to have ties to the mob—joins his class, Mike isn’t remotely interested in cultivating a friendship.
For some reason, though, Tschick is. Eventually, he wears Mike down, and off they go.
As it’s Mike who’s telling the story, we get to know him quite intimately: We see his home life (affluent but miserable), we know about his long-standing crush on the gorgeous Tatiana Cosic, we understand what he’s running from (and toward) when he takes off with Tschick. Tschick is a bit more of a cipher: It’s clear that he’s just as lonely and unhappy as Mike, and there’s a revelation in the last third of the book that provides some insight into that, but we only ever see him when they’re together, and only through Mike’s eyes.
That said, though they’re only on the road together for a short while, their rapidly-strengthening friendship and trust are completely believable, and it’s easy to understand why they’d develop such strong bonds so quickly. I wouldn’t have guessed it from the first pages—it begins with Mike sitting in a police station, covered in blood and in a puddle of his own urine—but it’s actually a warm fuzzy of a book: I was reminded, at times, of Stand By Me, but Why We Took the Car has none of the tragedy.
The dialogue—and I’m sure that the translator, Tim Mohr, deserves a lot of the credit for this—is FANTASTIC. It’s so authentic that it reads like a transcription of a conversation between 14-year-old boys: They banter, they argue, they digress, they joke, they show off; they are at moments awkward, silly, serious, wise. It’s a story about a boy from a broken family that pretends everything is fine. It’s a story about loneliness and abandonment. It’s a story about friendship, about kindness, about empathy, about confidence, about trust, about hope.
This is the first work of translation that I’ve read this year, and it’s whetted my appetite for more. Have any recommendations?
*Swap out the boys for American tourists, hotwired car for a rental, and BAM: Human Centipede. (Gross.)
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.