The other day I was taking a drive with a friend back to my old neighborhood and we passed a sign, one of those huge LED signs powered by a generator, that announces upcoming roadwork or detours. As I approached it and passed it, the sign broadcast only one message: “FIND ALTERNATE ROUTE.” Was it trying to tell me something?
“Find alternate route” certainly could be the mantra for the main character in Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar, a book that takes a deep dive into the insomnia- and ADHD-raddled brain of Matthew Carnap, from childhood into adulthood. When the book opens, Matthew has returned to his dying hometown, Prentice, Minnesota, after trying his luck in the Twin Cities and not doing so well. Matthew’s father died in Vietnam before ever seeing his son, and Matt’s been raised in Prentice by his single mom, with help from his Dad’s brothers, especially Rollie Carnap. Matt’s mother has never recovered from the death of her husband and is well-meaning but inattentive. The heart of the novel is the five years in the 1980s that she spent married to Russ Vargo, who owned Screaming Wheels roller rink. Matt and his mother moved into the small apartment behind the rink. Claustrophobic, certainly, but Matt and Russ developed an intense bond over the music at the rink.
Russ is obsessed with the music of the 70s and 80s, making mixtapes and playing them from the High Tower above the rink and after hours as well, skating late into the night to the sounds of his favorites. He can’t get enough. The nine-year-old Matt, happy to have someone paying attention to him, becomes Russ’s disciple; the music becomes his obsession as well. That’s not a bad thing but it does prevent Matt from thinking about what his life might be like after high school. He hangs around with a stoner named Greenland but manages to avoid trouble. Russ and his mother divorce, leaving Matt feeling stranded and alone once again After high school, for five years he takes to the road in his uncles’ business servicing coin-operated condom machines around the Midwest before giving up the “rubber route” and landing a writing job in Minneapolis.
When he returns to Prentice in his late twenties, empty-handed and depressed, Uncle Rollie sets up an apartment for him in the press box of the high school football stadium. It’s a good start for Matt in putting his life back together. I won’t tell anymore about what happens in the last third of the novel. The writing is wonderful and evocative, nostalgic and full of longing. The Kirkus reviewer said it had “lots of sentence-level snap” and I agree. It was a pleasure to read.
There isn’t much plot until the end and the novel is filled with playlists and Russ’s judgments about which bands are worth listening to. I’ve rarely read a book that does such a good job of conveying the power of popular music on our brains. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby comes to mind, of course, but also Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins-Reid. And especially the memoir Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by the music critic Rob Sheffield.