Thursday, November 18, 2021

Rim Of Thunder

Rim Of Thunder, by Dave J. Garrity
April, 1973  Signet Books

Dave Garrity turns in another fast-moving novel set in the world of stock car racing, following on from his earlier The Hot Mods. But whereas that story was more of a hardboiled affair, Rim Of Thunder is a drama focused on a twenty-year champ who loses it all in a spectacular crash and tries to get his courage back for one last race. The two novels are also told differently; this one trades off between first-person narrative and random third-person chapters, whereas The Hot Mods was narrated in first-person throughout. Both novels have one thing in common, though: they’re very short, coming off more like novellas, with Rim Of Thunder amounting to only 128 pages. The same length as The Hot Mods, in fact. 

Once again Garrity writes a racing story in which precious little detail is given; Roscoe Larkin, our narrator, is an 80-something racecar manager (and mechanic), and he speaks with authority on the subject – as if he’s talking to a fellow lifelong enthusiast who doesn’t need anything to be explained. Absolutely nothing is brought to life; Roscoe’s protégé, The King, drives Roscoe’s top stock car, “the 44.” There’s no description or explanation of the car other than “the 44” throughout the book. The races are told in this same “expert opinion” style, robbing them of much drama or impact – the same way such sequences were told in The Hot Mods. It’s clear that Garrity himself was a fan of racing and also that he hung out with racing crews to get all the vernacular correct, and there’s a definite vibe of legitimacy to the text, but at the same time it makes for a listless read for those of us who don’t much care about racing. 

Fortunately, the dramatic stuff is slightly better, and mostly interesting because it’s the product of an earlier, more masculine era. In today’s emasculated world, the King’s plight seems downright alien: how to “become a man” again after a crash-up that nearly ended his career. There is throughout a focus on men and masculinity, with the few women here reduced to either wives or groupies, and there are absolutely no concessions to the “inclusive” mindsets of today. The King’s wife has one or two minor sequences in the novel in which the narrative is given over to her thoughts (in third-person), but her plot is solely concerned with her separation from the King when he insists on returning to the races after recuperating for several months. There’s added drama with “the little King,” the toddler son of the King who has a heart problem and ultimately will require heart surgery before novel’s end. 

The novel takes place along the east coast, and opens with the King’s big crash during a dirt-track race. We’re never given his real name, but the King has been racing for Roscoe for twenty-two years, coming to him as a snot-nosed kid and gradually proving himself to be among the greatest stock car racers of all time, hence his nickname. How he fared against the protagonist of The Hot Mods, the magnificently-named Lux Vargo, we’re not told – but Vargo does exist in the world of this novel. In a nice bit of tie-in work, “Lux” is referred to twice in Rim Of Thunder: on page 78 he’s mentioned as one of “the good ones” who went on to other things after retiring, and on page 113 a character states, “Remember Jackie Evans in Lux’s 77?” 

Garrity has it that the King has been Roscoe’s champ for two decades, but in a repeat of the King’s origin story we have another wet-nosed kid who has gradually proven his worth driving lesser cars than the 44: Nino Cordone, a kid in his very early 20s with “an Andretti smile.” So while the King is recuperating (two broken legs and other assorted bashings), Nino’s been racing in his 44, picking up more wins for himself and moving into the spot vacated by the King. But when the King returns to the fold, insisting that he’s ready to race again, the 44 becomes his again and there is of course an underlying resentment from Nino, particularly given the growing implications that the King maybe should’ve just retired. 

For it soon becomes clear that the wreck broke more than just the King’s legs: for one, his family life is a mess. His wife Laura, it develops, has left him, taking “the little King” with him. She doesn’t want her man racing anymore, and can’t take the concern and worry. But the King’s chosen racing over the family and has come back to Roscoe anyway. Meanwhile he’s clearly lost his courage; he fails to make an impression in his first race, and as the novel progresses he further demonstrates his lost masculinity: when a thuggish racer with the misleading name “Shorty” Clanton challenges him to a fight, the King meekly asks “why can’t we be friends?” Soon thereafter the King’s also running around with Shorty’s sometimes-girlfriend, the notorious racing circuit tramp Gerry Cattlon. (Yes, Garrity names one character “Clanton” and the other “Cattlon,” seemingly for no other reason than to confuse the reader.) 

While it’s all capably handled, it does get a little goofy in that 80-something Roscoe thinks of the King’s family as his family. Roscoe, whose own backstory is occasionally doled out, has spent his life racing and never got married or had kids. So he started to thinking of the King’s family as the wife and kid he never had. All very strange, especially given that he’s twice the age of the King (presumably…I mean if the King started out as a kid Nino’s age and has been racing for 22 years, then that means he’d be in his early 40s, compared to Roscoe’s late 80s). This ultimately has the outcome of jacking up Roscoe’s own life; he has periodic blackouts and heart troubles in the book, but in true “tough redneck” fashion he walks off these incidents with a good shot of whiskey or two. 

The novel works its way up to a big race on the very same dirt track the King wiped out on at novel’s beginning. Garrity has various internal and external factors working together: the King’s racing ability, whether he’ll return to his family, whether “the little King” will survive his heart surgery, whether Nino will take the King’s mantle and become the new top racer. The climactic race is again described mostly via Roscoe’s authoritative narration, with occasional cutovers to random one-off spectators in the stand. Garrity does a good – if a bit too treacly – job of wrapping everything up in a positive conclusion. 

At only 128 pages, Rim Of Thunder moves too quickly to make much of an impression, but Garrity wisely keeps the focus on just a few characters. As a picture of the era it doesn’t really deliver, given the lack of much topical description, but it does serve as a nice window into a masculine mindset that probably wouldn’t exist in the fiction of today. As for myself, though, I didn’t relate as much to the King, as I sure as hell would pick my kid over the racing circuit.

1 comment:

Brian Drake said...

Garrity was a pal of Mickey Spillane, and I'd bet these racing novels were based on their own racing efforts, which Spillane wrote about in a few articles for the men's magazines in the '60s and '70s.