The review grabbed me, which is saying something. When I’m working on a review, I’m rarely thinking about it as a recommendation for my own personal reading. My primary concern is that it’s clear enough that our readers can draw a responsible conclusion about whether to purchase or read it.
“Social misfits hit the Autobahn,” it began.
Mike Klingenberg has just finished another boring, socially awkward year in middle school and is staring down a solitary two-week stint at home, thanks to his mother’s latest round of rehab and his father’s “business trip” with a suspiciously attractive personal assistant. Just as he’s watering the lawn, imagining himself lord of a very small manor in suburban Berlin, class reject Tschick shows up in a “borrowed” old Soviet-era car, and the boys hatch a plan to hit the road.
I read lots of reviews of road-trip books, but Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car leapt out at me. Rarely are the protagonists of road-trip books anything other than American, and even more rarely are they too young to be able to drive. And I have to admit that I fell in love right away with a kid who takes watering the lawn as an opportunity to go woolgathering on a grand scale. Here’s how it plays out in the book:
I was suddenly so excited about the idea that I could do anything I wanted that I did nothing at all.…Then I realized that the lawn needed to be watered. My father had forgotten to tell me to do it, so I could have gotten away with not doing it. But I did it anyway. It would have bugged me if I had to do it, but now that the house basically belonged to me and the yard was my yard, I kind of enjoyed watering the lawn. I stood on the steps in front of the house and sprayed with the hose. I had cranked the faucet all the way open and the water must have shot fifty meters through the air. Still, I couldn’t reach the farthest corner of the front yard, despite my trying out all kinds of tricks and messing with the nozzle. Because I had to do it without leaving the front stoop. I’d made that rule. The White Stripes were cranked up in the living room, the door was open, and there I stood, barefoot, with my pants rolled up and a pair of sunglasses on top of my head, the lord of the manor spraying his acreage. And I could do this every morning!
Honestly, Mike is plenty entertaining even before he gets in the car. Herrndorf absolutely nails the psychology of the mid-adolescent. Who but a 14-year-old would make up a rule that they have to water an entire lawn without leaving the front stoop?
Mike’s partner in his road-trip adventure is the equally appealing but enigmatic Tschick, short for Andrej Tschichatschow, a Russian boy relatively newly arrived in Mike’s Berlin school. He is frequently drunk, utterly impervious to schooling and reputed to be in the Russian Mafia. Keenly aware of his loser status, Mike sees joining Tschick on his odyssey as a way to leave his milquetoast identity behind.
“[T]here’s a difference between sitting in a car with adults who are talking about construction-grade concrete and Angela Merkel, and being in a car with no adults and no chitchat,” Mike reflects. “It was a totally different sort of car ride, a totally different world.”
Sans map or cell phone, Tschick and Mike decided just to drive south, in the general direction of Romania—a perfect display of kid logic. Their entire trip plays out according to that logic. When they run out of gas, they siphon some from a car at a rest stop, but only after buying themselves ice cream and Cokes. They climb a mountain just because it’s there. They listen to a Richard Clayderman tape over and over “even after Richard and his piano had made us puke,” because that’s all they have.
Every 14-year-old wishes they could go on a road trip like this, catastrophes and all.
But even more than the humor, more than the surreal trip through the former East Germany, more than the rock-solid characterizations of Mike and Tschick, I love what this book reveals about modern Europe. For American readers, this vision will be eye-opening. With not a dirndl nor a pair of lederhosen in sight, the permeability of national boundaries is manifest in nearly every page. The car they drive is Russian; another motorist listens to Turkish hip-hop. Tschick holds a German passport but speaks with a Russian accent. His “family’s from all over—Volga Germans, ethnic Germans, Danube Swabians, Wallachian, Jewish Gypsies…” (“You’re talking shit,” Mike says of the last. “A Jewish Gypsy would be like an English French.”)
Mike’s gym teacher talks endlessly about soccer while he forces the kids to run, speculating on the chances of Bayern Munich and lamenting the trade of Joe Simunic. Distances unfurl in kilometers, not miles; Mike’s father leaves him €200 before heading off, not $275.
Some American reviewers will undoubtedly carp about this, arguing that American readers will be turned off by the German references. I find this argument both unconvincing and damaging. It is unconvincing, as, though politicians and soccer teams named are German not American, the context makes the meaning transparent. Substitute “Barack Obama” for “Angela Merkel” in the sentence about adult conversation, and the sense is exactly the same. Ditto the coach’s ranting about Bayern Munich; though the specific team may be unfamiliar, the sentiment is universal.
It is damaging, as it assumes that it’s just fine that American kids know only American culture. Mike is easily conversant with American pop culture. He knows Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child; he plays Grand Theft Auto and Doom. These are not sops thrown by translator Mohr to American audiences—they were there in the original German, there because Mike lives in an international world, one American audiences would do well to enter.
Reading Why We Took the Car would be an excellent start.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.