“I hate internal combustion engines and the civilization that has been built on them.”
So declares the narrator on the first page of the novel Horace Afoot. It’s a book about identity, small town life, existential wonderings and the closing and opening of hearts. It’s also the story of an anti-car man trying to live in a car-dominated society.
Horace lives in a small American town where corn grows in the summer, snow piles up in the winter and everyone owns a car except for Horace who walks.
His anti-car perspective creates some amusing scenes. While walking along a tree-lined residential street, Horace watches as a passing car screeches to a halt after the windshield is pelted with rocks. The driver leaps from his car calling the unseen kids “bastards” and seeking retribution. Horace does not reveal the where abouts of the kids who he considers to be a “band of little Luddites” who “are only trying to preserve the tranquility of their street by discouraging people … from driving down it.”
In another scene, a lawn care guy stops by and offers to mow Horace’s overgrown yard. “I’ll hire you,” Horace says, “on one condition. That you do everything by hand. No power mowers. Nothing that has a motor.” The guy takes a look, shakes his head and drives away.
The author, Frederick Reuss, pokes at car culture with his choice of words: cars are “growling boxes” that are “groomed” and “tucked into garages.” Chevy, I learned, is a variation of the word chivvy which means to harass. (I think of that now—harassment—when a Tahoe or Suburban roars past me on my bike.)
Although there are death threats, arrests, rapes, a murder and burglaries in this book, it moves with a quiet slowness, at a walking pace.
Horace, as a character, can be described as an intelligent, literary iconoclast and as an odd, repressed loner. He has no family, friends or career. He has legally changed his name at least three times. He telephones strangers and asks them about happiness, illusion and St. Bernard dogs. Town folks see him as a lunatic, a loafer, an untrustworthy weirdo. I’ve made the diagnosis that he has Asperger’s syndrome: he’s smart, verbal and socially skittish. I wonder: do carfree characters in novels tend to be depicted as unusual and out of step?
As the book unfolds, Horace starts to connect with people: he befriends a dying librarian and reads aloud to him in his hospice bed; he gives money to a small-time cocaine dealer so she can start over again, somewhere else, away from her hoodlum boyfriend. He takes a job at the library. He gets a pet. Please, don’t have him buy a car, I thought nervously. There had been suggestions along the way: there’s a scene where middle-aged Horace drives a car for the first time and an acquaintance tells him, “One of these days you’re going to get sick of walking, and when you do I want to be right there to help you pick out a brand new car.” By the end of the book, Horace has changed his name again but not his carfree ways.
Tempe, Arizona, USA
MacMurray & Beck, 1997