What Drives Men
Susan Tepper’s novel, What Drives Men, reminded me of a Cohen Brothers’ film, darkly funny, perceptive, and surrealistic. The reader accompanies our protagonist Russell, a Gulf War veteran with more flaws than a high schooler’s end-term essay, and his charge, Billy Bud Wilcox, a horn-dog, washed-up country-western star, on an off-road trip across a sort-of nostalgic version of America’s Heartland. Along the way, Russell and Billy (BBW) hook up with a threesome of Millennials. Clueless, yet conniving, Tad, Peaches, and Sonia are more than willing to sponge off of BBW and take advantage of Russell’s crusty good nature. The tension ratchets up what with the women hopping from bed to bed, snow flying and piling up, and the promise of a Rocky Mountain high waiting on the horizon. Throw in a fortune-teller and a malfunctioning catheter, a suitcase full of cash, a few bed bugs, and a Lincoln Town Car-load of crackling dialogue, and you’ve got one helluva good story. Leave it to Tepper to pull it all together and leave Russell in at least a different, if not better, place than where he started.
—Gary V. Powell, author of Getting Even and Other Stories
The idea of travel and picaresque connects with Tepper's earlier fiction, but here the male perspective (s) are new, delightful, and uncanny (“What is it with these women?" Russell was thinking…"Why do they always have to emasculate the male?”), and the landscape is American, ironically recalling all sorts of road trips West, from Grapes of Wrath (and Travels with Charley) to On the Road. I love the characters—Russell as the Gulf war vet and long-distance driver from New Jersey; the decrepit country and western music star, Billy Bud Wilcox, being driven to Colorado; and the three free-loading Gen-Xers they pick up in an Ohio “cowboy bar,” the doper Tad, and two drifter girls, Sonia and Peaches. The dialogue and ensemble voices are lively and authentic—enough so that again, as a Tepper fan, I can easily imagine this novel as a feature film, where Clint Eastwood would make a great Billy. Along with steadily diverting encounters and complications on the way, the characters all have depth and vanishing points, and while Billy’s story is framed from the outside, Russell’s is a warming back to life.
— DeWitt Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares
Susan Tepper takes us on quite a ride through the pages of her new novel, What Drives Men. Our traveling companions are a disillusioned, divorced Gulf War vet, a washed up, hard drinking country western star, a trio of young people that mistakenly think they are living a free-spirited life. Then throw in some gum-popping waitresses, a few hardened barkeeps, and a clairvoyant who learned her trade online. And the guppies, we mustn't forget the guppies. Rarely do these small fish get to be used as metaphor but Tepper deftly gives them their chance in this book. Tepper takes us from New Jersey to Colorado in a vintage Lincoln always, always, hurtling towards hope. What Drives Men is a terrific novel. Read it.
— Linda Adams Blaskey, author of White Horses
What Drives Men gives us a protagonist who's just lost his wife, has a slightly mean, low-life brother, no job, and is attacked by ... well, you'll see. Leave it at this: Russell's attacker is not one of life's major players, like Russell. We love and hate Russell: he's obsessive, selfish, and yet somehow, since we're so often inside his mind, we get to feel at home there, see ourselves there in this sad man who struggles to see himself and the world he's in as they are. His fellow travelers do inexplicable things, adding to the sense of chaos and impending minor disaster that follow Russell everywhere. But we and Russell also encounter rare generosities, strange moments of sympathy and empathy, and though these get lost in his daily obsessions, especially the body parts of every woman he meets— his is a kind of dis-interested but constant sexual curiosity— some of them also merit our empathy. Throughout, Tepper's prose is lucid and witty; a feature I really enjoy is that the chapter titles often signal the way a particular word or thing dominates that chapter: "Winner," the opposite of Russell, is a character's mispronunciation of the winter Russell is driving through both immediately and in his life; the chapter "Power Lines," details a phone call in which Russell is disempowered as usual by his brother, an electrical engineer. And Tepper portrays Russell's attitudes to women with a woman's insight into what drives men. At one point, describing his ex, Russell praises her thinness in contrast to "the monster mode feared by most men...Heavy solid....War-like bodies, warrior bodies, ready to stand up to men. Fight." This novel will amuse you, remind me of your own obsessions and pettiness, and your occasional transcendent moments of kindness and generosity.
— Mary Barbara Moore, author of Eating the Light
Like her previous novel, The Merrill Diaries, Susan Tepper’s What Drives Men takes us on a journey. And once again, Tepper writes in short bursts, both in sentence/fragment structure and in chapter length. Her voice is rapid-fire; clear but sometimes a step ahead of our comprehension. Or at least our expectations. And that’s intentional. While in the former novel, the effect was to uproot us from anything resembling solid ground, following the heroine wherever, and I do mean, “wherever,” she went, in What Drives Men the effect shakes our foundation in a different way. This journey is quite linear in motion, but while the path is relatively straightforward, the ride is no less disrupted – and disrupting. This time, it’s the supporting cast, a nearly-constant cadre of kids and clowns accompanying a country singer that casts us all into cacophony and chaos.
What Drives Men is a dizzying, kaleidoscope of ne’er-do-wells and burnouts challenging an outmatched veteran who suffers from mild PTSD, his annoying but well-intentioned brother, and a beast master employer, all at the service of a hallucinating, delusional has-been country singer.
From the complete disorientation smacking of Kafka and Camus, but with an icy humor, the novel goes for the jugular, the heartstrings, the conscience, and the crotch all at once. Episodes splinter into an untethered journey, like a war without weapons, no less filled with fog and fear.
This is a story of things broken, unstable, and unpredictable. The events these hangers-on usher in are unwelcome, unforeseen, unsettling; a microcosmic world in disarray, out of control. A metaphor.
Take a chance. You’ve got nothing to lose. What’s the worst that could happen?
No dice. Our hero, floundering in uncertainty, toes the waters of what becomes a maelstrom, his comfort zone upended. Though Tepper never tells us, though Russell, the protagonist, never outright realizes it, stateside domesticity echoes the absurdity and horrors of war. Interstate PTSD.
It was a simple job. Supposed to be, anyway. Who saw this coming? Road trip gone wild. And that’s the point.
—Jeff Santosuosso, author of Body of Water
Coincidentally, I started reading this book on an airplane flight from Newark to Colorado... a journey the characters in this modern day picaresque novel take by car. Russell meets the definition of a roguish but sympathetic protagonist, and the cast of misfits he finds himself among—an aging country western star, a brother, a psychic, and three young hangers-on—keep the surprises, shocks, and humor flowing. I was most touched by Russell's insights into his need for connection with his brother. Tepper is a master story teller, and the book is a page-turner. There's a short time frame, punctuated by apt descriptions of diners and seedy motels as Russell, his ornery old charge, and the young folks head west. There are surprises galore which I won't give away in this review. But be prepared - you are in for a wild, raw, and unexpected ride!—Donna Baier Stein, editor of Tiferet Journal and author of Scenes from the Heartland
Susan Tepper gets inside a character’s head and inhabits them lock, stock, and barrel. It’s impossible to believe that her characters don’t exist in real life and are still on their erratic journey. Tepper’s characters are full of spit and vinegar, humor and chaos; capable of unexpected kindnesses, and yet full of deceit.
At first I thought this is a bizarre group of characters on a road to disaster, led by a man of quizzical mind, great impatience, with inherent distrust of humans, or nature, including his own, yet full of integrity when it counts.
As you get to know the characters intimately through dialogue, you suddenly reconnect with the odd assortment of people who have come and gone through your own life, those people in which you scratch your head and wonder why? I was half-way through the book, before I realized those temporary people in my own life were not temporary at all. They remain encased in my consciousness, in minimal or maximum ways, offering the best, or the least redeemable qualities, that have somehow changed my life for better or worse. The book is a journey of redemption. The characters will last in your memory as well.—Judith A. Lawrence, Ed/publisher of Lilly Press
Susan Tepper is a master of the character-driven novel. I became a fan of her work after reading a fiction called “The Merrill Diaries”—and later, the wonderful novella, “Monte Carlo Days and Nights.” I took up her latest work, a road novel—Jersey to Colorado—fully expecting a great read—and I was certainly not disappointed. Tepper’s art is to make you, as reader, feel as though you’ve eavesdropped, for a time, on other peoples’ lives. When arriving at the end of one of Tepper’s novels, one simply does not want the story to end. Because then, one has to say goodbye—to her characters. Susan Tepper is not big on Plot. Instead, you get dialogue and description like this: ...“I already got a brochure from the desk,” Sonia was saying. She held up a glossy printed folder. “See. They look tres magnifique.” Tres magnifique. The Frenchie thing! What is it with these women and the Frenchie thing? thought Russell. ... In the story, Russell, a Gulf War Vet—who survives a contemporaneous “Squirrel Attack” in New Jersey—has been hired to drive Billy Bud Wilcox, aging country western singer, west to Colorado. Along the way they pick up three “millennials” (two girls, one boy) on the road. As it’s been said: “and then, they were five.” Tepper lets the gentle sparks fly. The eavesdropping begins. By the end of the book, the reader falls in love with all five travelers. As with her previous works, I could easily see this story adapted to the screen. I hope it is. I would love to see it. What Drives Men is what drives real life. Susan Tepper, the novelist, has arrived—and is here to stay.—Dennis Mahagin, author of GRANDMAL and Longshot & Ghazal
Susan Tepper makes use of her usual obsessions—travel and fortune-telling--to great effect in this book. There is humor, suspense, and real pathos in this long (though not too long) and winding journey from New Jersey to Colorado. But these elements won't be where you expect them to be; some of these characters are not necessarily the best traveling companions. They are demanding, selfish, and a little too spontaneous, in hilarious and exasperating ways. Perhaps the protagonist needs these people to push him out of the rut he's in, or to help him find what he's really looking for: somewhere to call home. In other words, he's looking for a place where he can be safe from threats of all kinds. No spoilers but I think that's the real moral of this story, which like all the Tepper books I've read, ends too soon. She creates real, compelling characters, so cherish the time she gives you with them, because they're busy people, always on a mission. I just wish the missions would last forever.—Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of The Hawkman and Daphne and Her Discontents
As seen in The Linnet's Wings BROOM BRIDGE TOTEM