And so I begin a Year of Geoff Nicholson with his very first published novel Street Sleeper. I’ve read most of Nicholson’s later novels, loved them, and decided to start off chronologically. I’ll have to admit that Street Sleeper isn’t Nicholson’s best, and you probably won’t want to start here unless you’re into the chronology thing or if you’re a die-hard VW Beetle enthusiast as I just happen to be.
Street Sleeper (1987) is currently out-of-print, and that’s a pity as it’s certainly cult novel material. It’s actually the first in Nicholson’s VW trilogy and is followed by Still Life with Volkswagens (1994) and Gravity’s Volkswagen (2009)
First things first–I’d better point out that a Street Sleeper is a deceptively fast car which more than likely looks like granny’s old banger from the outside but the magic starts in the engine. Think Drive and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. With that image in mind, Street Sleeper is the epic story of a discontented man named Barry who goes off the deep end, ditches his fiancée, Debby, buys a tatty old VW, renames it Enlightenment and takes to the road. When you’re driving a car called Enlightenment, you can’t go around being called Barry, so our hero changes his name to Ishmael, and yes, it’s after the character in Moby Dick. Here he is giving Debby the bad news:
“Look, Debby, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve been taking driving lessons in secret, and I’ve passed my test.”
“Well that’s very nice, but why in secret?”
“I don’t really know.”
But he did really know.
“And I’ve bought a car as well.”
“Aren’t you the sly one? That’s smashing. It’ll come in ever so handy after we’re married. When can I see it? I’m sure I’ll like it.”
She was wrong.
“It’s no good,” Barry Osgathorpe said, “We shan’t ever be married because I’ve decided that I must go out ‘on the road’ and find myself.”
So Barry… sorry, Ishmael takes to the road in his banged up VW and encounters many adventures along the way to ‘finding himself.’ There’s a hippie commune, a hitch hiker who’s into martial arts, a pervie with a scatological bent, and Marilyn, a budding young novelist who’s giving her bourgeois parents a run for their money. Ishmael teams up with VW mechanic, Fat Les to do battle against the forces of evil (Marilyn’s parents). Part road novel mingled with a hilarious version of VW history, this comic novel reminds this reader of a latter-day Candide, so Street Sleeper definitely qualifies as a picaresque novel with naive Ishmael somehow coming through his misadventures intact. Since this is a picaresque novel, it’s not strong on character development, and most of the people Ishmael meets exist to offer bizarre new experience or serve as obstacles for our hero.
As I go back over the novel to write the review, I realise just how funny this book is, and a great deal of the humour comes from Ishmael’s reactions to the weirdos he encounters.
When Howard returned he was wearing a leather dog-collar, a black latex posing pouch and nothing else. It did not seem the best moment to advise him on personal problems.
“You know,” Ishmael started, “there are many rooms in the mansion of human sexuality but whatever you’ve got in mind I’d just as soon keep this one locked.”
“I hope you’re not going to turn out to be a tease,” Howard said.
Interspersed with Ishmael’s adventures are snippets of VW history with a typical Nicholson touch:
In the same building as the Benz showroom is the editorial office of the Volkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the National Socialists. Herr Hitler is often seen entering and leaving the building. Jacob Werlin finds him a nice enough chap, perhaps fairly extreme in his opinions about Jews and communists, but with his heart more or less in the right place. He drives a Benz, or rather his chauffeur does. Herr Hitler too is a motoring enthusiast, although inevitably he sees it from a rather uncompromising political perspective.
Herr Hitler now emerges from the newspaper office, sees the children at the window and delivers sharp, accurate slaps to their ears. The children run, the little boy dribbling as he goes. Herr Hitler enters the showroom.
Since we get an overview of VW history, brief sections cover Hitler’s involvement with the production of an efficient, inexpensive family car and the fate of the VW post WWII. Here are two British officers discussing the VW factory which happens to fall in the British Zone after the fall of Berlin, and thanks to Hitler’s involvement, the car needs an image adjustment.
Radclyffe says, “we’ve just bombed the factory into absolute buggery. But, frankly, it’s the only decent bit of vehicle plant that we British have got. Oh yes, the bloody Americans carved it up very nicely for themselves. The American zone just happens to contain the Mercedes, the Opel and the BMW factories, while the Russian Zone also has a BMW factory and an Auto Union plant at Zwickau.”
“We’re left with a more than half-bombed factory, and a pretty half-baked prototype.”
I am going to hazard a guess that somewhere along the way, Nicholson has owned a VW or knew someone who did, and I’ll argue this point because the author seems to understand his VW obsessives. Nicholson’s work reflects his obsession with obsessives (yes, I did that on purpose), and obsessives make great reading material as they abandon all rational behaviour in order to indulge their true, all-consuming passion. Naturally the obsession in Street Sleeper is VWs. I don’t care what town you live in, if you have a mechanic’s shop that specialises in VWs, then you have located the most idiosyncratic mechanic shop in town. The VW mechanic is a different breed, and author Nicholson captures the VW subculture perfectly here through the creation of Fat Les and his relationship with Ishmael and Enlightenment.