rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up Destroy All Cars because I recognized Blake Nelson’s name from back when, in the mists of the early 90s, excerpts of his first teen novel, Girl, were published in my much-beloved (now much-missed) Sassy magazine. The chapters were a sharp and vivid exploration of the emotional wasteland of adolescence, which I was traversing at the time. Destroy All Cars, Nelson’s latest novel, mines the same tumultuous territory, now (for me) bittersweet nostalgia. (Nelson also wrote Paranoid Park, which Gus Van Sant made into a movie, so it must have been pretty good.)
Seventeen-year-old James Hoff is furious with humankind, particularly the “CONSUMER AMERICANS” who surround him; he sees the destruction of the environment and climate change as willful but oblivious suicide. Not that he really minds the idea of his species wiping itself out, but he’s afraid the planet will go with it. But rather than “get involved” like his ex-girlfriend (and still feminine ideal) Sadie, who’s head of the school’s Activist Club, James confines his venting to the AP English essays scattered throughout the book, bending the assignments (to his teacher’s dismay) to fit his favorite topics: greed, hypocrisy, and the scourge of the automobile.
James reminds me a bit of the like-named protagonist of Peter Cameron’s brilliant Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, both in his profound unhappiness and his wry dismantling of other people’s foibles. He views Sadie’s petitions and canned-food drives and bike-path campaigns as hopelessly insignificant (one of the reasons they broke up), but his anger offers only impossible solutions: Stop having children. Destroy all cars. The novel is often funny—particularly James’ fruitless search for a new girlfriend and his interactions with his long-suffering English teacher (who, after one essay, forbids him to use any more “manifesto stylings”), and James does grow as a person, however much he’d hate the phrase. There’s a sadness, though, to the compromises of maturity; perhaps if we could tap into the ardor of youth from time to time, we’d be better off.