Most of us will never really know what separates a great mechanic from a decent one. We submit our broken cars and leave. The craft takes place under a hood behind a garage door. We return later and the funny noise is gone, erased by a greasy magic trick that leaves us feeling both grateful and taken advantage of. It is a field ripe for some novelistic examination.
In Wayne Harrison’s debut novel, The Spark and the Drive, we witness the inner-workings of a renowned garage. After a brief internship months before, Justin, a recent high school grad without a niche, is hired full-time as an apprentice mechanic at Nick Campbell’s auto shop, Out of the Hole, in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1985. Justin is our narrator and explores this drama as a reflective adult. Nick’s reputation as a muscle car specialist stretches over the Northeast Corridor, down the east coast. He was a Road Rage cover story. He is a man of few words. His wife Mary Ann runs the desk. The garage is populated by gruff veterans Ray and Bobby and later, Rod, a young hotshot who represents an industrial shift towards computer-based diagnostics.
While the story promises a coming-of-age motif, Harrison thankfully isn’t too interested in understanding the decisions young Justin makes. Instead, the story revolves around the tragic loss of Nick and Mary Ann’s one-month old child Joey, which occurs just before Justin is hired on. Every choice, every interaction between these three characters is framed by this darkness. It compels Nick to consider moving the shop to Miami, without Mary Ann. It compels Mary Ann to give herself to Justin. The relationship of Nick and Mary Ann is complex and private, and information drips into Justin’s bucket as he falls deeper in love with Mary Ann and balances an odd paternal loyalty to Nick. The two adults, lost in themselves, lean heavily upon an eighteen-year old.
A lot of big life things happen to these characters in a relatively short period of time. Whirlwinds of character struggle tend to read cheaply, but Harrison, with grounded compassion and simple declarative descriptions, writes a story with real weight and not a sniff of self-indulgence. It is expertly paced, never overwrought, often funny. Justin, on losing his virginity: “It was my first sex but not hers, and the hay gave me a rash on my knees; it was not romantic (though I’d brought candles) but stiff and determined, at times unfriendly.” Bobby, on his fear of the shop being bought out by Precision Tune: “Have you ever seen a Precision Tune? They’re bright yellow.”
Harrison was a mechanic himself and it quickly becomes evident. The challenge in being a specialist at a thing and also writing a novel about that thing lies in the writer demonstrating their knowledge without losing the reader in lingo. Harrison is a natural. He teaches without letting you know you’re in class. “Out in the shop, the Corvette was holding a big choppy idle in the first bay, the massive camshaft lobes I’d held now pushing against the heavy valve springs. Nick was adjusting the mixture on the bottom of the carburetor. He revved it only minimally and the sound was how the world would end at low volume.”
The cars are alive and provide our humans with pedals to push, metal to lean on. They purr and hum and roar, propelling Harrison’s passengers into the unknown. “Nick was right about engines,” Harrison writes. “They didn’t change. Even the computer-controlled ones just became more efficient at what they did. Fuel and air and spark, for a hundred years. I wanted the mechanical simplicity to overrun my mind and wash out everything else.”
The Spark and the Drive
by Wayne Harrison
St. Martins Press