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Geoff Nicholson: Gravity’s Volkswagen
If you are familiar with Nicholson’s early work, you know that he has something of an obsession for Volkswagens and Hollywood. This novel combines these two obsessions. The hero/narrator is Ian Blackwater, something of a pulp novelist. We can learn what he wrote as there is a bibliography, with a brief summary, of all his works at the end of the book. However, in this novel, we are concerned with his Volkswagens and Velociraptors, a book which he himself accepts is not a great work of literature. He added the velociraptors in, primarily for the alliteration with Volkswagen. He knew nothing about them, except what he had seen in Jurassic Park and found that that film was biologically inaccurate (the real ones had feathers, unlike those in the film). The plot of his novel, explained early on, is relatively simple. An unspecified global catastrophe destroys human life on Earth but not the infrastructure. A group of Volkswagen Beetle fans in London happen to be in an underground car park when the catastrophe occurs. They survive and when they dig themselves out, realise they have the whole of London, indeed the whole of the UK, as their playground and that is what they do – play with their Volkswagens in the streets and parks of London. However, the catastrophe had somehow disturbed a hidden horde of velociraptors buried deep in the London tube system and they come out and, of course, attack our Volkswagen heroes. The Volkswageners try to escape the velociraptors and even fight back, but with little success. However, one of the Volkswageners, called Troy, emerges as a Hitler-like leader and leads his men on to battle and to destroy the velociraptors. However, once the velociraptors are defeated, Troy remains in full Hitler mode.
Initially, there was some interest in making a film of this book. Options were purchased but came to nothing. Indeed, options were purchased regularly but not taken up. Finally, Josh Martin, a US producer/director, bought the option and decided to make the film. He had switched its setting from London to Los Angeles but Ian was happy with this, not least because part of the deal was that he got a free ticket and lodgings and Los Angeles was better than London. It turns out that the film is to be made in the (fictitious) town of Fontinella, some one and a half hours away from Los Angeles. Ian’s plane ride was a convoluted journey which ended up in his arriving at 2 a.m. at Ontario airport, where he was met by an intern, Cadence, in a battered Toyota. He was taken to the film set, where he was allocated a trailer as his accommodation. As he had anticipated, there was not much for him to do while filming was taking place. He found out that there was a problem with filming. Just next door to the film set was a speedway, which Josh Martin had thought was abandoned but was now occupied by an auto freak show, which was very noisy. They had to be continually bribed to keep quiet while filming took place.
Ian eventually gravitates to the speedway where he meets one of the performers, a woman called Leezza, who drives a VW Beetle over a row of stationary cars and with whom he falls in love almost immediately. He also meets Barry, who was actually living in a broken-down VW Beetle (he used tubes…). Barry was so overweight he could not get out of the car and had to be pushed by a willing victim, of which Ian was one, to the nearby hamburger stand. Barry was English and we hear his story. As Ian seems to be of limited use on the film set, he is asked to devise a way to enhance the speedway show to attract more of an audience and, with the help of Barry, he devises a way, which may result in one or more fatalities. Meanwhile, the film is going badly and Ian is drafted in to help out there. Of course, in good Nicholson fashion, the two cultures collide and there is the usual cataclysm.
I am a great fan of Geoff Nicholson but I found this one a bit of a disappointment. It lacked his usual spark of originality. It was his first novel for five years (though there had been two non-fiction works in-between), his longest gap between novels. While it is, as ever, witty, fun to read and a good tale, it is almost as though he were going through the motions – Volkswagens, Hollywood (or not quite Hollywood), a few jokes and that is it. There is not much else, none of the usual vision nor exploration of the quirky side of life. Clearly, from the title and a few references, it is meant as a homage to Gravity’s Rainbow but, equally clearly, it does not begin to stand comparison with that great novel. I hope that he will come back with something better than this.
First published 2009 by Harbour