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Review: The Life and Times of Car Johnson by Rebekah Webb

The Life and Times of Car Johnson by Rebekah Webb is a comedic biography of a fictional character. One could almost say my reading experience of this book was a trip.

The book is presented in first-person, as though the character is dictating. During the first few chapters, I thought I was reading a transcript of a stand-up routine. In the beginning I was thinking, this is decently written comedy but when does the story begin? Surely a “life and times” includes a story?

I hung in with the book because the material has a flow. I felt I was being led somewhere, which is either remarkable or disturbing or both when you consider the narrator is an idiot. “There’s an art to being my type of idiot,” Car says in chapter 13, in case you think I’m being rough on the guy. Gradually, more of our narrator’s personality comes out through his telling of daring entrepreneurial adventures and unique dating experiences, along with this ironic proclamation: “Idiots of the world, unite!”

The irony of urging idiots to unite can be understood within in the context of the original Greek meaning of an idiot as a “private citizen,” as opposed to a “public citizen.” Car Johnson is, in the beginning, anyway, impervious to the opinions, needs, and suggestions of his fellow humans. I imagine Ms. Webb understands this history of the term “idiot” as we have this from Car: “There’s a difference between being stupid and being an idiot.”

Because I notice both irony and humor, I start to think maybe this book is satire. To have such a selfish narrator is partly a commentary on social tension between “public” and “private” citizens, right? Or is this intellectualization on my part an attempt to balance out the horror I feel when Car speaks lovingly of his cow fetus collection?

Eventually the character of Car Johnson comes fully into his own and he takes over the book. He shows more confidence during his money-making projects (“My toy cemetery idea was coming along nicely”), realizes the value of a steady girlfriend, and even references his “biographer.” Indeed, half way through the book Car introduces an “Ask Car” feature at the end of each chapter, in which he answers a question. The source of these questions isn’t clear but I assume they are from comments left on the website he has just set up for The Cow Fetus Appreciation Society.

During a bid to become the next famous daredevil, Car discovers the joys of performance art. Interestingly, in chapter 41, Car hits upon the idea of opening a comedy club. This lasts about a day, so he goes on to songwriting and publishing endeavors. He’s come a long way since his days of trying to be a rodeo clown, beekeeper, or “freelance lifeguard.” And he’s managed to keep a steady girlfriend, who is now his partner in these artistic ventures.

This book is not for everyone. If you enjoy silly humor or comic book-style characters, you’ll probably like it. There is a great deal of creativity underneath it all, both on the part of Car and the “crazy lady who types up” his life story. I give this book 3 stars.



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