Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
by John Bennett
(Ellensburg, WA: Hcolom Press, 2006)
Review by Jim Feast
Which comes first, the end or the beginning? In most contexts, such a question would seem nonsensical, but in relation to a fantasy novel such as John Bennett’s Tire Grabbers, it does have some bearing.
Let me explain. The first four parts of the book, roughly 270 pages, concern one set of characters, who are engaged in battles in various locations around the planet. The last section, about 90 pages in length, has a new set of central characters, mostly descendants or transformations of the earlier ones, a new location and a new conflict. Various indications, which I will come to later, strongly suggest this final part, “The Reign of Moloch,” was the germ and genesis of the whole book.
Before saying more on that point, let me characterize the project. Tire Grabbers is a rambunctious, ramshackle whale of a novel that describes a scrappy, decades’ long battle between the rulers of the Hard World, a streamlined, totalitarian society, the U.S. re-imagined as if Joe McCarthy’s ideas now governed the country, and the Secret Place, another-dimensional world of the spirit, presided over by such worthies as Jesus, Buddha, Allah and, last but not least, Henry Miller! The Secret Place seeds the Hard World with shamans, unicorns and hunger artists, who, while trying not to draw attention to themselves, subvert this world’s seeming ineluctability.
The key character in this longer part is Patrick O’Reiley, son of a gung-ho career soldier, Sean, and a withdrawn, housewife mother, Alice. His first run-in with parental authority comes when he is two years old and his dad catches him shredding the morning paper. However, unbeknownst to other family members, this destruction of property is part of his path to liberation. Calling forth his latent shamanic powers, he is able to body forth a dream world from the tattered newsprint, something otherwise lacking in his drab surroundings, an industrial area of the East Coast, aka, the Lair of Bruised Dreams.
The narrative runs on three tracks, not only charting Patrick’s and his family’s life, but telling the story of the Hard World’s two dictators, Jasper and the QC, who note hard-to-pin-down emanations of rebellion coming from their kingdom. At one point, they think these vibrations may be coming from Patrick and so they place him, for study, in an artificial environment. This is a hologrammed town, located in the suburbs of Cheyenne, in which his family has been replaced by drone robots, and everything around him, from post office to passersby, are replicas or virtuals. The third track covers the cosmic machinations of the Secret Place sages, who, frankly, are not too hands-on in guiding the universe. Indeed, they have to bring Miller to their meetings so he can give them the lowdown on what the “man on the street” is thinking. They are trying to get a bead on both the doings of Patrick and on the forces that begin to oppose him.
The book, whose plot moves at a dizzyingly fast clip, is an enjoyable read. It puts zippy satire in the mix, as, for example, when Alice comes to see his teacher at Patrick’s Catholic school, after he has been mistreated there. “The nuns grew tense and the children grew inwardly gleeful, because they knew [what they heard] was the sound of an angry mother, the only force on earth that could stand up to a nun.” Later Bennett comments on how the Catholic school has been given a new moniker. It is called “an Information Impartation Institute,” which is to say, “Progress! Out there in this alien world, everything meant the opposite of what they said it did. They were calling it progress to change the name of things.”
The book is also filled with moments of spiritual and psychological insight, conveyed in provocative, New Age, mind-bending statements. This occurs, for instance, in his description of the reasoning behind the Hard World’s schools hiring sexy teachers. When Patrick enrolls in Guam – his father is constantly reassigned to new bases – he is in the class of Mrs. Browning.
She was succulent and bronze and dazzling, and she drove the little boys wild. She wore tight wrap-around flower-print dresses that left her arms and shoulders bare and her firm, full breasts barely covered. … [Why?] Mrs. Browning was a test run for a program that had been brainstormed by the QC. … The idea was to arouse and link pubic longings to Hard-World conformity codes, leaving the imprint that conformity yields sexual rewards.
The book also offers rousing battle scenes as when, back in Cheyenne, Patrick joins a Mexican motorcycle gang and makes war on the armed agents of repression, also on motorcycles, who are further terrorizing an already near-comatose population.
I said it seemed as if the final section of the book came first. Let me explain why. In the introduction, Bennett writes, “Tire Grabbers started as a children’s book and evolved into an allegory for the world we live in.” Now the protagonists of the last part are two children, four-year-old Anastasia and her slightly older brother, Jake, who are raised, after their wayward, wanderlusting parents decamp, by the Ancient One, a kindly grandfather, who lulls them to sleep with tales of mermaids and tire grabbers. (Note, the book’s title characters only occur in the last few of its nearly 400 pages.) It’s easy to speculate that the book had its origins in stories (the ones that compose the last part) that the 70-year-old Bennett (the Ancient One) told to two grandchildren; eventually evolving by leaps and bounds, into a long pre-story, which leads to the last segment. There the new, child protagonists must pick up the cudgels so as to carry on the good fight of imagination and spirituality against greed, power hunger and conformity.
Of course, eventually, this section had to be slipped in last, no matter when it was written in the composition process because the book ends with Anastasia entering into her heritage of rebellion, now choosing sides by picking up what in our postmodern world is an updated magic wand, a pen in the hand of the poet.