Gas stations occupy an ephemeral space in most of our lives. Perhaps for the length of a car inspection or oil change, we might reflect briefly on the repair shop scene, with its tools and parts, its girlie calendar and oldies radio, and the greasy-handed mechanics (rarely women) ruminating over car innards. Mostly, though, we gas up and leave.
Now here's Joseph Torra, a poet, who in his first novel gives us a remarkable book-long meditation on a particular gas station, a Jenney station in 1960s working-class, small-town Massachusetts. Far from being of fleeting interest, this gas station allows the author to offer an intricate, sympathetic, sometimes outraged, always graceful commentary on the larger world.
Though it seems at first a plotless semi-documentary account of daily life at the station--the ringing of the hose bell, the foul smell of engine fluids, the whine of the compressor are always present--the book's true focus is the relationship between a dreamy boy and his heavy-handed Italian father, who runs the place, and various other human dramas.
It's a random yet purposeful narrative, part coming-of-age story, part tale of compromised adulthood, underlined by Torra's unusual, barely punctuated, elliptical prose. This technique is familiar from his book of poems, "Keep Watching the Sky," where words and images tumble like dominoes, flashing coded meanings. The difference is that the poetry of "Gas Station" comes from the more prosaic rhythms of speech, and its meaning lies in the disjointed yet recognizable shape of everyday experience.
One of the reasons "Gas Station" works so well on a universal level is because it is presented in the plain, unselfconscious voice of a boy on the verge of adolescence--a quiet boy who notices everything. Even as he drifts through generic teen life--tussling with parental authority, sneaking cigarettes, walking the dog, fantasizing about sex--he's also wrestling with difficult lessons about adulthood, family and community.
Thus, through the boy's observant eyes, we are both drawn to and repulsed by his volatile lazy father, with his weakness for gambling and women and his capacity to be gruffly compassionate. And we are clearly meant to be disturbed by and sympathetic to the boy's mother, who is defined only by her cooking and her ability to throw her husband out when she learns of his love affairs--though she always takes him back--and who is simply struggling to make a workable life for her family.
Mostly, the boy just tries to understand. But when he weighs the dark side related to small-town poverty, there is a hint of incipient outrage. The town's race hatred, homophobia and corruption--especially a church's protection of a drunk priest, and the giving and taking of favors at every level of power--are presented as ugly truths. And at the novel's shocking climax, Torra suggests that, even as the inevitability of gas station life gives the boy a much-needed sense of security, he will surely later reject the underlying violence, hopelessness and dishonesty of the place.
Yet Torra is not a writer of unrelenting gloom. If he has an overriding theme, it is that, as repetitive, boring and bleak as life is at times, it may also be absurdly funny and touching, even remarkable--especially because of the human urge toward integrity, which Torra presents in the shape of Blackie, the gas station's foul-mouthed but kindly mechanic.
With his instinctive ability to make innumerable auto parts work together as a smooth-running whole, Blackie offers the boy something his father cannot, a passion for creativity. For true mechanics, Torra suggests, are like poets (which the dreamy boy will surely grow up to be), honest laborers who pay attention to detail, never take short cuts and think out the implications of what they do.
In its understated way, "Gas Station" is a celebration of artistic truth, not as something to put on a pedestal, but as a necessity, inextricably entwined with life and hope.