Thursday, January 29, 2015

Juvenile Delinquents and Auto Theft: The Fiction of Theodore Weesner and the 1972 novel "The Car Thief"

Perhaps the most realistic portrayal of this form of juvenile delinquency appeared in literature rather than film. Theodore Weesner’s 1972 novel The Car Thief (chapters of which were published as early as 1967) served as a dark and rather disturbing representation of the subject in the period.25 Weesner’s central character is Alex Housman, a 16 year old high school student living in Detroit. Alex is white, sensitive, and of above-average intelligence, the product of a working class broken home, lives with an alcoholic father on Chevrolet Avenue, yearns for fellowship with a brother he is separated from, and desires love from school girls he fears. As the novel opens on a day in late October with streets clogged with slushy snow, Alex is about to steal a 1959 Buick Riviera, “Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil.” The Buick was also his fourteenth stolen car. And contrary to notions of the joy rider as experiencing exhilaration, Alex is filled with fear while driving the car.

the tediousness of driving did not go away. The pressure kept growing until he felt it in his jaws, and he began losing his strength of grip on the steering wheel. His stomach was drawing tighter. It was a pressure, an anguish, which had over taken him before, but he did not think of that, nor very clearly of anything. He closed his eyes against the feeling and opened them. His jaws felt chilled. He removed his foot from the accelerator, and as the sensation was seizing him, he slammed his palms against the steering wheel, jarring it, as if a violent striking there might cancel an explosion elsewhere.26

            Alex takes his cars on rides in the country outside of Detroit, hoping he can catch a glimpse of the brother he is separated from in front of a tavern in which the latter now lives with his mother and stepfather. Alternatively, Alex has a desire to lure young girls who attend “country” high schools into taking a ride with him. And it is Eugenia Rodgers’ coat left in his stolen 1959 Buick that ultimately leads to his arrest at the end of a school day, and the beginning of a rather horrific set of consequences that first sends him to juvenile detention, then back to his high school where he is branded as a no-good. Ostracism and a beating follow. Teachers and fellow students are often brutal and rarely understanding or forgiving. As the story winds down, Alex’s father, worn out by chronic alcoholism and life in general, commits suicide. Clearly, auto thievery has resulted in nothing but pain and grief, and none of the supposed thrills experienced by the middle class joy rider as depicted in sociological studies. Alex shares none of the other of the characteristics of the youthful auto thief of his generation. Weesner’s book suggests that in the real world of a blue collar kid, there is little to celebrate from disregarding the law, and much to fear.

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