A year ago, I bought a car. Or, rather, I took over a car about to be junked, paid for the repairs, and brought it to New York. This was dumb. The car was a sky-blue if slightly rusty 1985 Saab, and for the next six months it made late-night trips to Manhattan’s grocery stores, attended a party in Queens, and moved all my belongings to Brooklyn. It also lost a tailpipe and then a centerpipe, collected a fantastic number of alternate-side-parking tickets, broke down halfway to an important literary function with 36 cases of beer in the back, and finally died, hemorrhaging brake fluid, at the corner of Empire Boulevard and Bedford Avenue.
New York City is an enemy to European cars—and, according to Rafi Zabor, to humans. His memoir and spiritual-quest narrative, I, Wabenzi, is about the tragedy of both. It opens with agony and a quarrel with Tolstoy. Zabor, watching his parents die slowly, painfully, acrimoniously, in their apartment off Flatbush Avenue, recalls the moment in War and Peace when the captured Pierre Bezukhov is trudging barefoot through the Russian snow, thinking that suffering, too, has its limits, that a person can get used to anything. “It is an audacious statement,” writes Zabor, “in the middle of a stretch of narrative that may be the most fully realized portrait of the activity of Enlightened Mind in the whole of Western fiction, but it is untrue.” Pain, Zabor thinks, watching his father’s, is infinite, unrelenting, and it cannot be borne.
But there are consolations. While in mourning for his parents, “ditzing interminably around, my way lit by guilt’s fitful lantern,” Zabor hears from his friend Max Rosenblatt—a certified lunatic, actually, as Zabor informs us—that a Mercedes-Benz can be had in Belgium for just $5,000. A bohemian jazz drummer and music writer, and, at the time, the author of an unfinished novel about a brown bear who plays alto sax, Zabor begins to burn quietly with worldly desire. He will buy the Mercedes and drive to Turkey to visit the grave of an old mentor. In the process, he will become a member of the Wabenzi, the people of the Mercedes-Benz.
Of course—this is a very meandering book—Zabor never makes it to Belgium or Turkey. For 200 pages, he can’t even make it out of Brooklyn. He is flooded with memories of his childhood, his mad Jewish uncles straight out of Augie March, the battles of his loving immigrant father against his overbearing American aunt. A city that had been the repository of culture has become a necropolis through which he maneuvers, barely conscious. He drives with his uncle Avram to say the Kaddish at his father’s grave, noting “the animal grace with which the old man sat even in that insufficiency of a Chevy.” He visits his aunts near Washington Square, “both middle-aged now, both divorced, but only one with brain cancer.” The New York half of this book is so filled with frenetic, haunted, brilliant characters, and with Zabor’s masterly reconstructions of their talk, one almost forgets that it is a memoir of intense suffering.
Yet through it all, Zabor does suffer, and through it all he notices, in a very un-Tolstoyan way, what everyone is driving. His lawyer drives a Mini, insisting it can be parked anywhere; his depressed friend Peter drives a rusting white Datsun. Rosenblatt, the lunatic, has bought “a lean and low-slung used red Alfa that put a look of crazed adoration on his face but hardly ever ventured out of the repair shop.” One’s car corresponds to one’s level of spiritual attainment, and it is only when Zabor finally reaches England, where he was once part of a mystical Sufi sect, that he discovers a real live Benz. He is transported.
“I admired the seeming decisiveness with which its front tires moved when steered, unlike the random tread of lesser cars, and wondered if this was foolish misperception. Of course it was foolish misperception, though it also had to do with smart wheel-well design, deep-greaved rubber, and vented matte aluminum wheels: in short—the color of money.”
The realization—that he, a man with no money, has no business driving such a car—makes only a slight dent on Zabor’s consciousness. The book has by then wandered into an account of his spiritual training among Sufi mystics, and it is due to this narrative drift more than anything else that he doesn’t get around to actually buying a Mercedes. This is too bad—and yet the first half of the book remains a tour de force. To be trapped in Brooklyn, surrounded by a family of lunatic Jews, and dreaming of a Mercedes that you know, deep in your heart, will be just as much a wreck as you: That sounds about right. Life is cruelty and disappointment, and then you buy a car.
I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir
By Rafi Zabor.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
480 pages. $26.