One chapter of Grant Ginder’s “Driver’s Education” is titled “How to Map Your Memories,” and it’s an apt description of how this engaging new novel unfolds. It begins with an urgent request after Alistair McPhee suffers his first stroke. He asks his grandson Finn in New York to fetch Lucy, his trusty, beloved 1956 Chevy Bel Air, out of storage in Chinatown and drive it across country, delivering it to him in California, where he is now living with Finn’s father, Colin.
However, it’s not a straightforward journey that McPhee charts. He wants Finn to “collect the endings to all his stories.” He says, “I’ve forgotten. I’m forgetting.” He mails his grandson a map detailing a precise outline for the trip, a map crisscrossed with printed and scribbled lines that retrace important places from his past.
Finn knows this may be the last request of a dying man. So he takes leave of his stale job as an editor for a reality TV show, conscripts his friend Randal as travel buddy, and sets off to retrieve Lucy from a hilarious old butcher named Yip, whose Chinatown shop Ginder describes so vividly you can almost smell the blood of “various chopped up appendages hanging on all sides.” The catch is that because of a promise McPhee made Yip decades earlier, they can’t take the car without also taking Mrs. Dalloway, a three-legged cat that Yip insists is 50 years old and “just won’t die.”
So off they go, Mrs. Dalloway tucked into Randal’s backpack, to re-create and relive McPhee’s stories. From there, “Driver’s Education” unfurls as a series of recollections, reflections, and incidents, bounding back and forth in time and recalled through first-person accounts alternating between Finn and his father. It’s both a kind of two-generational, coming-of-age story and an unsentimental portrait of a fragile aging parent sinking into dementia, all fueled by a road trip that vacillates between grimy and grim and wild and wacky.
We learn about the death of Colin’s mother from cancer, plunging his father into a kind of depressive wanderlust, seeking redemption. We learn of Colin’s childhood passion for classic movies as a way to connect to his father and of his subsequent writer’s block as an adult screenwriter. He remembers, “I used to be so good at this. Twenty years ago, blank white sheets used to be wide-open highways, clean, paved roads; conduits to thrilling and accessible places away from myself. I used to fly down them with terrifying certainty, taking the banks and curves at breakneck speeds . . . never clamping my heel against the brake; never noticing the wheeze of a tank that’s out of gas.”
And we learn about young Finn, who through this epic cross-country trek, tries to put family memories back together, strengthen bonds, and stave off the inevitable.
Throughout “Driver’s Education,” Ginder’s writing is colorful, direct, and imaginative. I love the description of semis on the highway that “seem to spawn, then vanish, then be next to us again, running in herds like buffalo.” At times, it is also achingly poignant, as when Colin remembers his father at his mother’s funeral. “There was a light brushing of skin as he grazed my shoulder. I remember very clearly that I wanted to feel him for longer. I wanted my hand to be smaller. I wanted to hold on to one of his thick knuckles with my five tiny fingers.”
Occasionally, the novel crosses the line into a kind of fantastical farce, as when the car breaks down in “Buford — The Greatest One-Person Town in the West!” And at the end, the book jumps the shark, skipping to 2015 with a major reveal that some readers may find jarring. However, you can’t help but enjoy being along for the ride; “Driver’s Education” is a stirring, memorable trip.
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn