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The Spark and the Drive


The Spark and the Drive

It’s the mid-1980s, and Justin Bailey is your typical rudderless teenager in his hardscrabble, blue-collar Connecticut town. He doesn’t want to go to college and has no real ambitions beyond his love of cars. Things at home are not exactly idyllic, with his father having recently left the family. His mother’s response is to retreat further into drinking and depression, leaving Justin to look after his younger sister, April.

The only thing that interests him is working on cars. He begins an apprenticeship at the local auto body shop, Out of the Hole: “After two years in vocational high school, I understood the general repair mechanic to be the perfect masculine blend of strength and intelligence. Real men had a natural respect for mechanics, primarily for specialty mechanics, which we all were.”  His love of mechanics is pure, but the real attraction at this new job is Nick Campbell, the owner and master mechanic --- the man who “prophesied the rebirth of American muscle cars.” Justin first read about Nick in Road Rage magazine, and, from there, his future was set.

"Wayne Harrison’s writing is spare and stark, but precise. His characters are so vivid, you can almost smell the grease and gasoline."

In addition to learning at the feet of the master, Justin likes the camaraderie of the shop, with roughneck guys like Ray and Bobby. Nick’s wife, Mary Ann, covers the desk and phones. Trying to escape his own family’s drama, Justin is drawn to his new makeshift family at the garage and spends a good deal of time with Nick, Mary Ann, and their infant son, Joey.

But just when things seem fairly harmonious, two major events rock the foundation of this ersatz family:  some slick drug dealers from Miami come into the shop and pitch a plan to Nick to relocate the garage to Florida to work exclusively for them (obviously doing illegal repairs on hot cars); and a tragedy drives Nick and Mary Ann apart. These happenings set the characters in THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE on a collision course with fate: “It was going to happen. Nick was going to reinvent the American muscle car and redeem himself. He was already making plans for Florida, the most grave and radical of which was that he wasn’t going to bring his wife.” Nick was living mostly in his head, with dreams of Miami and leaving his despondent wife on her own. Although young and inexperienced, Justin knows enough about loneliness and isolation. He sees a kindred spirit in Mary Ann, and the two start spending a good deal of time together. But what’s that saying about the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”?

Wayne Harrison’s writing is spare and stark, but precise. His characters are so vivid, you can almost smell the grease and gasoline. Fans of James Sallis’s DRIVE or Nic Pizzolatto’s GALVESTON (also the creator/writer of HBO’s “True Detective”) will appreciate all the “gear-head” details, but for me, who knows nothing about cars and their repair, the “mechanics,” both figurative and literal, feel like a metaphor for Justin’s desire to become a man. At first, he thinks about a man like Nick: “It was hard for me to put into words that I needed this visceral, spontaneous, unapologetic mechanic life to transform me into the man I want to be.” But there’s nothing so sad as watching your heroes fall from grace and having your dreams dashed --- something that Harrison relates with heartbreaking agility in his impressive debut novel.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on July 18, 2014

The Spark and the Drive
by Wayne Harrison

  • Publication Date: July 15, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250041244
  • ISBN-13: 9781250041241