All I Have in This World: A Novel
- By Michael Parker
- Algonquin Books
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Kim Bradley
- August 29, 2014
Lives intersect on a used-car lot.
At a used-car lot in Pinto Canyon, West Texas, strangers Marcus and Maria have their hearts set, for different, desperate reasons, on the same 20-year-old sky-blue Buick Electra.
In Michael Parker’s latest novel, All I Have in This World, it’s a tie as to who deserves the car most: Marcus is a man on the run, Mexico the only answer to the problems he can’t undo. He lost his family’s 400-year-old farmhouse in a pie-in-the-sky venture, and in another moment of unthinking — a catch phrase of the novel — loses his pickup truck and belongings. Marcus imagines himself cruising, windows down, with music on the CD player: “Isaac Hayes at Wattstax,” “Dusty in Memphis,” Charlie Rich. He thinks, “When had he ever come up with a playlist just looking at a vehicle?”
Maria has already fled her past and now returns home to Pinto Canyon to confront it. She has never owned a car and sees this Buick as a way to make amends with the ghost of her high school boyfriend, a whiz of a mechanic who died because of her own moment of unthinking. Maria is ready to settle down, to drive herself to redemption. Fortunately, both characters — one a prodigal daughter, the other on the run — get the prize: They buy the Buick together.
Not only is the story told from the third-person points of view of Maria and Marcus, but in what separates this novel from the ordinary, the narrative boldly backtracks to an automobile assembly line in Missouri in 1983, where a teenager named Brantley brings chassis to body — he “marries” cars. One night, smoking pot, waiting for trains to clatter by, a friend asks, “When you’re putting the car together, do you ever wonder, like where they will end up? Like who’s going to end up driving the one you’re working on at that moment?”
Brantley has never given the question a thought, but the next day as he marries what will one day be the Buick bought by Marcus and Maria, he obsesses over the idea, and this propels a separate plotline. While Marcus and Maria’s story continues forward, the Buick’s past is revealed through the many lives that have come in contact with it. Two of these perfectly paced stories include a woman in Brazil, Indiana, who is terrified of learning to drive, and a doctor in Austin, Texas, whose son, in the grip of a debilitating addiction, ditches the Buick and runs away. These separate stories don’t bog down the central narrative, they only enrich it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the book without these lives at its heart.
All I Have in This World takes on ambitious themes of failure, loss, and forgiveness, which could equal a world of despair, but Parker delivers them with humor. For instance, early in the novel, Marcus makes two lists: “All I Have in This World,” coming up with no more than toiletries, clothes, and a bottle of “passable zinfandel,” and “Most Pressing Needs,” in which he writes, “redemption,” “that song ‘Badge’ by Cream so I can crank up the part that goes, “I told you not to wander around in the dark,” and “because I do not deserve native cuisine, having behaved unthinkingly, a greasy grilled cheese with chips and a Coke?”
Parker’s past novels are set in the Carolinas, but he writes about this landscape with the smell of creosote on the dusty plains of West Texas better than most native Texans. What could easily have become a road trip/love story of characters on the lam who never confront their problems, instead blossoms into an unforgettable, heartwarming novel of hope and resilience. This book reminds us of that our own moments of unthinking can’t be reversed, but with honesty, understanding, and, most importantly, friendship, they can certainly be forgiven. And, like Brantley, the young assembly line worker in Missouri, after reading this novel, you will forever imagine the secret lives of every vehicle you’ve ever owned.
Kim Bradley teaches creative writing and first-year composition at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Her short fiction has appeared in Southern Indiana Review, the Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, and Real South Magazine.