Driver's Education

  • Grant Ginder
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 272 pp.

Three generations refract their family’s history and realities through their own lenses in the author’s second novel.

Reviewed by C.B. Santore

Fiction masquerading as truth. That might be a good description of what Finn McPhee does as a film editor for a reality TV show. He takes real video, actual images, and manipulates the sequencing. A shy smile may have originated in one encounter but ends up in another; an angry outburst shows up long after the event that triggered it. Whether this makes what the viewer sees fact or fiction, well, that’s up to the viewer. Reality TV, Finn says turns “reality into what everyone wants it to be.”

Grant Ginder’s second novel, Driver’s Education, follows his highly acclaimed 2009 debut effort, This is How It Starts, and examines the relationships of three generations of McPhee men — Alistair, his son Colin, and Colin’s son Finn — and how each views reality as what he wants it to be. This latest novel is a sentimental story of fathers and sons, the power of imagination, and a hilarious road trip from New York to the West Coast.

Twenty-three year old Finn is summoned to drive his grandfather’s car to him in San Francisco where, because of failing health, Alistair must live with his son Colin. Alistair named the car after his deceased wife, Lucy, and he loves it. In Alistair’s mind the car is as he wants it to be — shiny and new — but in reality, the Chevy Bel Air is scratched and faded. The trip will also reunite Finn with his estranged father, Colin, who raised his son as a single parent after Finn’s mother left them.

Before he can begin the trip, Finn must retrieve the car. It’s being stored by his grandfather’s friend, a Chinese butcher named Yip. Yip only plays the part of the jolly Chinaman, speaking broken English to the customers at a “real authentic” Chinese butcher shop because, as he tells Finn, none of them “wants to buy things they can’t pronounce from a guy who’s lived in Long Island City since he was eight.” Yip makes his customers’ reality what he thinks they want it to be. Out of earshot of his customers, Yip drops his cover; he really talks like Tony Soprano.

Interspersed with a narrative of Finn’s cross-country journey are flashbacks to Colin’s childhood, the too-early death of his mother (both Colin and Finn grew up without mothers), his life with his emotionally distant father Alistair, and his love of the movies. The movies not only enchanted Colin as a child but also were how he learned about the world. Films sustained him after his mother died and his father was away from home for days at a time. Now a screenwriter, Colin is down on his luck after selling just one successful screenplay. He stares down writer’s block each time he looks at a blank page, his once imaginative mind now occupied with worrying about his frail father.

In his heyday, Alistair made his living as an engineer and traveled the country to build bridges, collecting stories as he went. He was fond of telling his son, and then his grandson, about his adventures on the road. Traveling with his buddy Randal, Finn feels compelled to visit the locations of his grandfather’s stories and McPhee family lore. Finn burnishes the stories to a finer hue as he retells them to Randal.

In Pittsburgh, Finn scouts the location where his grandfather saved a man living in a building slated for the wrecking ball by building a “house” of old phonograph records around him. In Columbus, Finn searches for clues of the woman his grandfather wooed, who if her life had not been interrupted by the romance, would have been the first woman to fly around the world. In Chicago, Finn wants to recover the baseball that Ernie Banks hit for his 500th career home run, which is in the possession of a gangster because of, as the story goes, a miscue by Alistair.

The stories are engaging, improbable and fun. Storytelling is part of the McPhees’ tradition and almost as critical to Alistair and Finn as their DNA: one helix truth, the other hyperbole. Their “reality” was what they wanted it to be, or perhaps what they needed it to be when life was too painful. And although the storytelling gene seems to have skipped a generation, in a surprising twist, it is storytelling that brings Colin and Finn closer together.

Ginder, who earned an MFA from NYU, is a master storyteller himself, presenting the tale of the McPhees through a prism that refracts fact and fiction. The result is a satisfying read about the interplay of memories and imagination, the yin-yang of truth and fiction.

C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.

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