Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

“You don’t think there’s something eye-catching about jack-boots, Nazi uniforms, death’s head insignia?’

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this time it’s the second volume of the author’s Volkswagen trilogy: Still Life with Volkswagens. This follows Street Sleeper, and there are so many repeat characters with continued history that readers should begin with the first book and then read on. In Street Sleeper, Barry Osgathorpe aka Ishmael, the Zen Road Warrior, bought a battered old VW Beetle, dumped his long-suffering girlfriend, Debby, and took to the road to ‘find himself.’ Along the way he met Fat Les, a VW mechanic, who converted Barry’s junker into Enlightenment, a loaded Beetle that is the envy of those who see this gleaming machine, and together with Enlightenment, Ishmael had many adventures and met the woman of his dreams–even if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

still life with VolkswagensBack to Still Life with Volkswagens which finds Barry (yes, back to plain old Barry) dossing in a caravan in Yorkshire. His short-lived days of adventures are over, and Enlightenment is permanently parked and covered due mainly to Barry’s current obsession about the planet, greenhouse gases and global warming. He’s considering forming a club called the Green Beetles for those committed to never driving their cars:

They may clean and polish them once in a while, even sit in them from time to time with their friends and families. The important thing is; they will never drive them. They will leave their cars parked next to their house or caravan, never start the engines, never pollute mother earth with their deadly fumes.

Debby is still in Barry’s life, and she’d still like to travel a bit but Barry defensively argues that he “never want[s] to go anywhere or do anything.” Problems begin for Barry when Volkswagens mysteriously begin exploding all over England, and banking scion Carlton Bax, the world’s “foremost Volkswagen collector[s]” goes missing. Involved whether he likes it or not, Barry is forced to abandon his inertia. Not only is Barry a prime suspect for both crimes, but the love of his life, Marilyn, now a weather-presenter on television, reappears in Barry’s life and begs for his help. Marilyn suspects that her father, Charles Lederer, recently released from a mental asylum may be responsible  for the war against Volkswagens and the disappearance of her lover, Carlton Bax. (If you’ve read Street Sleeper, you’ll remember both Marilyn and Charles Lederer, and it’ll also make sense to you why Lederer hates Volkswagens).

Since author Geoff Nicholson developed some many great characters in Street Sleeper, it’s wonderful to see them back for the second part of this trilogy. After all, why waste characters by only using them once? So Fat Les reappears–now the proud owner of a “clean and flawless Volkswagen emporium” near Southend. It’s in this building, an “exhilarating piece of Odeon-style seaside deco” called  ‘Fat Volkz Inc,’ that Fat Les runs his very lucrative VW business.  According to humorless Detective Inspector Cheryl Bronte, Fat Les is yet another suspect in the disappearance of Carlton Bax. Also making a re-appearance is Marilyn’s nymphomaniac mum, Mrs. Lederer who gets her “revenge”  on her neglectful husband by offering her body to cab drivers which is a bit difficult when a man she mistakes for a cab driver is driving a custom Beetle.

Add to this crazy list, Phelan, a sicko, cunning neo-Nazi who likes to be whipped (amongst other things) by leather-clad dominatrix Renata Caswell (who also appeared in Street Sleeper). Phelan’s master plan is to organize a gang of yobos or as he describes them: “A band of supermen, roaming this great country of ours in chariots of fire, by which I mean Volkswagen Beetles.”

Naturally Still Life with Volkswagens is full of Nicholson’s brand of dark humour. Here’s Barry having a conversation of sorts with Phelan:

“You’re like me Barry. You look at all these people and what do you see? Do you see your equals? Do you see creatures made in god’s image? I don’t think so Barry. I think you see a lot of useless clutter. Don’t you think a lot of that clutter could be tidied away?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” Barry says.

“Oh, I think you have,” Phelan says insinuatingly. “Haven’t you ever thought to yourself that the world would be a much better place if only there were more people like you in it?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m here to tell you Barry that there are more people like you in the world than you might think.

Take a drive around the M25 Barry. What traits are displayed by your fellow man? Aggression, selfishness, bad temper, competitiveness, madness brought on by stress. that’s not what the world ought be like, is it?”

“No,” Barry admits.

“When Adolf Hitler conceived of the idea of the autobahn that’s not what he had in mind at all. He saw long straight fast motorways uncluttered by riff raff and deviants.”

“What?” says Barry.

“You’re a good citizen, aren’t you Barry? You’re law-abiding, moral, politically middle of the road, not sexually or socially deviant. You’re male and you’re white.”

“Well, to an extent,” Barry stutters.

“Why deny it Barry? Why be ashamed? You don’t want the world left in the hands of extremists and perverts, do you? Of course you don’t. In your heart of heart you’re just like me, just like us. You know Hitler was right.”

“About motorways?”

In this tale of the battle of ‘good’ vs. the forces of evil, Geoff Nicholson’s humour knows no taboos, so he’s just as ready to poke fun at neo-nazis as he is at any type of extremism–be it perversion, obsession and collectors (all favourite themes for this author), so it should come as no great surprise that while the book includes a fair amount of trivia about Volkswagens, somehow or another, various Volkswagen drivers and collectors are mentioned: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hitler and even the Fabulous Elvis also find their way into these pages. And for anyone who plans to scream in outrage at the very idea, let me say that Nicholson’s black humour diminishes Manson and Hitler into the pathetic, sick human beings they were, empowered by people misguided enough to sign on for their madness (and no I’m not comparing Manson to Hitler. They just both happen to appear in the book). Who knew so many weirdos were attracted to Volkswagens, and what does that say about me? Oh never mind.

Not only does the author show some of the weirder aspects of the Volkswagen enthusiasts, but by interjecting fact into his fiction (there’s even a bit of the author’s own life in these pages), somehow the craziness blends, and neo-Nazis of the Apocalypse and Volkswagens exploding nationwide just don’t seem that far-fetched:

Manson starts to live out more of his fantasies. He sets up a production line behind the Spahn Ranch, which he calls the Devil’s Dune Buggy Shop. Volkswagens are stolen from town, taken to the ranch, stripped down, converted into vehicles of the Apocalypse. Some of them can be bartered for drugs and weapons, and he hopes they’ll be useful in some of his other fantasies, like kidnapping busloads of schoolgirls, raiding a military arsenal, murdering a few rich pigs.

Pride of the fleet is Manson’s own command vehicle. It is one Hell of a dune buggy. It looks both futuristic and ancient. There is a ‘magic sword’ sheathed in the steering column. locks of human hair tied around the roll bar, a sleeping platform, armour plate, a machine gun mounting, a fur canopy. It has been recently resprayed, then desert sand thrown onto the paint while still wet, to form a kind of camouflage.

When the whole shooting match is over, this Command Vehicle will be displayed at a car show in Pomona, California, and get a lot of admiring attention from the custom Volkswagen fraternity.

Charles Manson Family Dune buggy graveyard Spahn Ranch Dec. 27, 2011 Santa Susana Pass Road

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10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

10 responses to “Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

  1. As someone who is fascinated by quirky, odd obsessions as well as quirky odd people I really should read Nicholson. This books does sound very entertaining.

    Speaking of odd and quirky, I followed the below link to that video.

  2. That’s the thing with Nicholson, he adds passages about real people, and it’s so bizarre, you don’t know if it’s true or not. Then you find out that it is….

  3. acommonreaderuk

    I have never read anything by Geoff but my son in law keeps telling me to try him – the title of this one alone is enough to attract me, but your review makes me want to go out and buy it (alas I have a budget to think about).

    My latest review is of a very “noir” book and I have referred to your interest in the genre.
    http://acommonreader.org/severe-regis-jauffret/

    • Thanks Tom for stopping by to tell me about the book and YES, it’s something I want to read. I just started another Nicholson which I think you’d like a lot.

  4. This sounds really fun but I’d have to read part I first. I think that belnding fact and fiction like that has a really uncanny effect.

    • It’s slightly disorienting. There was some stuff in here that I thought had to be fiction (especially since Nicholson writes with humour) but then when I checked it wasn’t. Suddenly the idea of Volkswagens exploding all over Britain wasn’t far-fetched.

  5. I’ve read this one! I recall that I liked, but didn’t love it (then again, I’m not sure I’d read the previous novel which may have been a factor). That said, if you have an interest in the odd and quirky it is something of a must read.

    I do recall the mcguffin with surprising clarity, but can’t say what it is as I think it comes as a surprise in the text. Still, interesting it still sticks in my mind, that suggests Nicholson got something right.

    Nicholson is a bit of a one of a kind author, which thinking about it is actually rather high praise.

    Tom, glad to see that link. I’m not getting emails from your blog, I’ll have to resubscribe since I don’t want to miss your reviews.

    • As I re-read Nicholson’s books, I’m more convinced that he’s difficult to peg.

      I’m not getting Tom’s e-mails either and I’ve re-subscribed. I think there’s a glitch.

  6. I know someone you should read this (beside myself of course)
    I’m going to send her your review.

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