LEARNING TO DRIVE by William Norwich (Atlantic Monthly Press: $22, 214 pp.). What made "Bonfire of the Vanities" such a wonderful book was Tom Wolfe's ability to chronicle, through personal experience of New York City's myriad subcultures, the clash of divergent social groups. William Norwich, a Manhattan gossip columnist, tells of a similar collision in "Learning to Drive," but the novel is pale and skeletal compared to Wolfe's.
Tabloid gossip columnist Julian Orr, on the advice of his therapist, decides to take driving lessons in order to visit the graves of his long-dead parents in Connecticut and thus put an end to his haunted, overlong childhood. Orr is ready for his road test--ready as he'll ever be, at least--when it's suddenly canceled, at which point Orr panics, creates a stink, and forces the driving school to press a reluctant instructor, Hector, into service. A seemingly comic novel suddenly turns melodramatic: Hector, in a literal blind fury, takes Orr hostage in the car to vent his anger at being so powerless, while the columnist--gay, Jewish, orphaned--identifies with Hector's anger and flashes back to his disaffected youth (mainly because Hector's 8-year-old daughter is in the back seat).
The novel's premise is decent; it doesn't work as executed, for only the scenes of Orr's youth carry emotional truth. Hector and his daughter are stick figures, and when Orr takes a cellular phone call from an impatient editor while the police shoot Hector, the story verges on parody. Norwich intends irony with this tableau, of course, but the contrast only makes Orr himself, and not just his occupation, seem trivial.