THE RED CAR, by Marcy Dermansky. Liveright, 206 pp., $24.95.
Forgive me if I burble, but reading Marcy Dermansky puts me in a good mood. The third novel from this dry, entertaining and crookedly insightful writer, author of “Twins” and “Bad Marie,” features a moderately unhappy young woman named Leah Kaplan whose former boss, Judy, helps her escape a quasi green-card marriage to a dull Austrian guy, the suffocating badness of which Leah hasn’t yet admitted to herself. That makes it a tricky maneuver, especially since Judy is dead.
It was with Judy’s blessing that Leah left the company they both worked for in San Francisco to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer at grad school in Louisiana, and at first they kept in touch. But after Leah married Hans against Judy’s advice, their connection broke. “I had gone quiet after I had gotten married. I was not sure why. My life had gotten less newsworthy,” Leah muses, in her flat, nearly monosyllabic way.
Then, 10 years into Leah’s post-San Francisco life, another former coworker calls with terrible news. Judy has died in a crash in her beloved red sports car, a car Leah took a dislike to the day Judy bought it. Nonetheless, Judy has bequeathed it along with some money and a letter of instruction, to Leah. Leah will be flown first-class to San Francisco to attend the funeral, she will be collected from the airport by a sexy male co-worker she always had a crush on, and she has to leave in four hours.
When she tells Hans she’s going, he plummets to the nadir of all possible spousal behavior, wrapping his hands around her throat.
But in case all this isn’t enough to dislodge Leah from the circumstances her old mentor so disapproved of, Judy hangs around Leah’s life as a ghostly voice. When Leah orders a third glass of complimentary champagne on the plane to California, she hears from her for the first time. “Not too much,” says Judy. From there, she often offers encouragement: “Follow the signs,” or “Good girl,” or, when Leah feels unreasonably guilty for choosing a bad place to have lunch, “It’s just a burrito.” Yet Judy will not answer questions or speak when spoken to, nor will she clarify whether her death was an accident or a suicide. This situation creates a particularly unresolvable sort of grief, a plaintive and genuine emotional note running through the dreamlike narrative.
Despite her guilt over her burrito mistake, Leah comments, “I did a lot of not so good things, but somehow I did not doubt my goodness.” Ah well, how bad are these things, anyway? She charged a guy for sex back at Haverford and had to leave. On the current trip, she has sex with a woman who lives in her old apartment and with that cute coworker who still isn’t into her. As it did to Dermansky’s previous heroine, Bad Marie, this stuff just sort of happens.
“Maybe I had been reading too many Haruki Murakami novels,” says Leah at one point, commenting on the report of her Deadhead auto mechanic that the red car has magically fixed all its own body damage. Little does she know that she’s about to meet a certain Japanese novelist’s hotel-clerk niece, and that lovely girl will have an interesting solution to her unwanted car problem.
This seemingly artless but in fact very controlled novel is on one level, a fairy tale complete with fairy godmother, and on another, a whispered goad to the reader: Live the life you really want.