Picks and Pans Review: Letourneau's Used Auto Parts

updated 06/27/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Carolyn Chute

Chute sure knows how to create eccentric, hateful characters, and she sure knows how to create squalid places to put them. What it all adds up to is another question. This book's setting is the same primitive town as that of her 1984 novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine. (A few Beans make guest appearances.) The plot is one of unrelieved despair. In the gripping opening, a man returns home from a girlfriend's house to find that his wife and children have died in a fire; when he learns what happened, he drives away. There are three suicides. Three young people are sexually involved with stepparents. When E. Blackstone Babbidge has sex with his wife's daughter, "his passion is hardly distinguishable from his familiar and constant rage." In a rare triumphant moment, young Severin Letourneau "feels indomitable. He feels damn good." What Severin feels so swell about is that he has just spent all of a winter night in the cab of his pickup truck with his wife and two children; they have been thrown out of their hovel and have no money. This is not, in short, a book that makes you want to hop the next flight to Bangor. There are a bewildering number of characters for a 244-page book, too—three Jennifers, a Big Lucien and a Little Lucien (Big Lucien owns the junkyard in the title), many ex-wives of various men and lots of odd people who pop in for a page or two. Lack of focus is a problem right from that opening fire scene, which is never alluded to again. Chute can set a scene: "Blackstone drops into the old spring rocker and folds his arms across his chest, knees wide apart. He shoves his denim work cap to the back of his head. He never makes the chair rock. He is not the rocking type." She can be carelessly repetitive, though; after noting that "the baby on Sonya's hip is named Kenny," she writes four pages later, "the baby with the bad legs is named Kenny." And Chute also makes up words pointlessly. One character tosses a "wobbed-up" pack of cigarettes on the floor. Someone else "muckles" a woman's shoulders, as in grabs. These coinages can only further alienate readers—the last thing Chute needs. By the 100th page, the best thing to hope for is that a giant meteorite will hit Egypt, Maine, and obliterate all these jerks. (Ticknor & Fields, $16.95)

From Our Partners