23 August 2014

Jacques Poulin: Volkswagen Blues (1984)

I first read this novel several years ago and found it slightly strange. And although on second reading I certainly find it far less strange, it's interesting that one of the two central characters in it says that people would see both of them as mad if they were expected to believe this story of a chase across two thirds of America following the thinnest and most unlikely leads to find a lost brother.

This is what la Grande Sauterelle (or The Big Grasshopper, called so because of her long legs) states towards the end of this enthralling book, which is only thirty years old but in some ways comes from a very different era. Hitch-hiking drives the narrative: dormobile driver Jack Waterman (a writer) picks up hitch-hiker la Grande Sauterelle and her pet kitten just outside Gaspé in Québec province, and largely through her intuition and psychological skills they come to discover vital snippets about Jack's brother Théo, a man he's searching for after ten or fifteen years because, well, it feels as if his life is collapsing and he needs something to keep him steady. Then (again towards the end) they pick up another hitch-hiker, an old man who finds odd jobs where he can and whose intuition leads Jack to his brother; Jack tells la Grande Sauterelle that the old man thinks he's Hemingway as he says he used to live in rue du Cardinal Lemoine in Paris, he's been to Cuba several times, he loves Key West, and the only house he has had was in Ketchum, Idaho: just a few of a number of references to writers that Poulin seems compelled to mention.

Today the drive wouldn't just not have happened because almost no one hitches anymore, but people merely have to turn to the internet to get information about people they're looking for. But a long road trip (and there are a few mentions of Kerouac in passing) is of course sexier, especially if you're a guy of forty by chance spending the summer with a beautiful half-Indian girl half your age, cuddling up at night in the sleeping bag with her – but then, there's virtually no mention of sex here, the only real occasion being when they hit the continental divide and la Grande Sauterelle strips naked ready for a sexy celebration with Jack, who can only respond by ejaculating prematurely.

Jack (usually just referred to as 'l'homme') doesn't exactly come over as fulfilling traditional masculine functions in this refreshingly feminist-leaning male-written novel in which la Grande Sauterelle not only has the brain power and the sex drive, but she's also pretty useful with a toolbox when the Volks breaks down and Jack is reduced to wiping the sweat from her brow as she works away. So it's perhaps not too surprising that he leaves her with the Volks in San Francisco and flies back to Québec in the end.

Are there any other messages here? Well, it's not necessarily too good an idea to go chasing across the continent after a long-lost brother who may turn out (as Théo does) to have 'creeping paralysis' and doesn't even recognise you when you finally find him. Oh, and Jack thinks that to hook a person into a book you have to start with a brilliant opening sentence: this book opens with 'Il fut réveillé par le miaulement d'un chat' ('He was awakened by the miaowing of a cat.')

I loved the book.

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