Porter Shreve’s 2000 debut novel, The Obituary Writer, was a fresh and engaging shaggy-dog tale narrated by a plucky 22-year-old newspaperman named Gordie Hatch. Marooned in St. Louis as a lowly obituary-page reporter, Hatch dreams of becoming a big-time investigative journalist like his father, whose memory is kept burnished by Hatch’s feisty widowed mother, Lorraine. The cleverly plotted story seemed to lose its focus toward the end, however. Shreve devoted too many pages to a lurid confession from the novel’s femme fatale, while sidestepping a far more compelling subplot concerning Hatch’s mother. As if recognizing that there were familial conflicts left unexplored in his first book, the author has placed a strong maternal theme and presence at the center of his new novel, Drives Like a Dream.
Lydia Modine is a 61-year-old divorcee living in suburban Detroit, where she has made a name for herself as a Motor City historian. The first third of Drives Like a Dream is orchestrated beautifully, introducing a large cast of characters brought together for the marriage of Lydia’s ex-husband, Cy, to a much younger woman. The novel alternates its point of view between Lydia and her 27-year-old daughter, Jessica, who, along with siblings Davy and Ivan, has returned home to attend their father’s wedding. Shreve deftly shifts back and forth between Lydia and Jessica’s often clashing perspectives. The blighted landscape of Detroit’s run-down business district is evoked with naturalistic detail, while Lydia’s scholarly knowledge of the automotive industry adds to the verisimilitude.
Drives Like a Dream unfortunately doesn’t fulfill the promise of its well-crafted opening pages. A flirtation between Lydia and an activist professor of urban and environmental planning escalates to sitcom silliness when Lydia begins embellishing the comments she makes to her children about the state of the romance. Adding to the hurly-burly, Lydia befriends her ex-husband’s eccentric new in-laws and she learns that her late father may have been guilty of corporate espionage in the 1940s when he worked for maverick carmaker Preston Tucker. Shreve works hard to intertwine the multiple plot threads and to suggest that this is a dysfunctional family taking a circuitous route toward acceptance of one another’s frailties, but he succeeds only in straining credulity. The mystery surrounding Lydia’s father, for example, is resolved in a preposterous fashion that seems as much a failure of nerve on the author’s part as a failure of imagination.
The finest scene in the novel has an unforced emotional honesty. Lydia’s ex-husband Cy drops by unannounced after his big weekend wedding. Living alone now in the house they’d shared for thirty-three years, Lydia is stunned by his visit. As they talk about basement bric-a-brac and the remnants of Cy’s abandoned hobbies gathering dust, Lydia’s resentment slowly begins to churn beneath the civilized surface of their conversation. (“Yet she could imagine now, as he stood there holding the door for her, his voice in perfect control as if tuned to the sympathy channel, that as the months and years accumulated, as he drifted away and became unrecognizable, she could become angry, even bitter.”) The scene is layered with sadness and regret. Too often, the frenetic pace of Shreve’s story crowds out or sabotages moments like this.
Drives Like a Dream has the unmistakable earmarks of a second-novel slump: while more ambitious than The Obituary Writer, its contrived narrative never finds its voice or momentum, qualities that brought distinction to the earlier book. Porter Shreve nonetheless remains an author to watch. His talents are such that he seems poised to surprise us down the road with a first-rate novel.
– Bob Wake