According to my notes, the Driver’s Ed company is located in Suite 405. Well, the tall mahogany door in front of me does have the number 405 on it, but I’m looking at a brass plaque with the name of some real estate company. There’s no mention of any driving school.
I push the door open anyway, enter a silent room, and hike across a mile of marble to the reception desk. The lobby is excruciatingly bright and devoid of plant life. A receptionist looks up from blowing on her bright finger nails and chirps, “Hello,” with false enthusiasm.
“Um, I’ve come for my Driver’s Ed interview,” I stammer. “Is this the right place?” I glance down at her desk and spy the latest issue of People and a bottle of nail polish, modern accessories of the downsizing-prone employee.
She laughs as she nods. “They all say that.”
“Buckle up,” Thomas Sullivan warns his readers early in this “excruciatingly” boring narrative, the detailed chronicle of the author’s time working for a “hypocritical” driving instruction company, “and enjoy the ride.” Car puns abound—“Maybe a sort of Car-ma was at work” in leading his destiny to this job, for instance, a job for which he was, initially, “revved”—but even as the humor here is relied upon to give life to the story, it falls short. Righteous anger, rather than humor, is the deeper motivation here; Sullivan tells this story in order to give voice to his indignation at the “empty, commercial relationship” this particular company had with its clients, kids for whom the authors feels a particular connection and for whom he has a special compassion, which, in turn, is the root of his pedagogical approach. If you care about how “Being exposed to a Driver’s Ed company that doesn’t value people or relationships,” then you might manage to stomach a few pages of this book.
Plot twists include the part where the author decides, “it’s time to finally deal with my dental issues.” Moments of revelation include the moment where the author “must admit that I’ve done a full reversal on the cell phone issue,” declaring “Maybe these communication technologies can be cool if you can control their impact on your life.” There are also broader reflections on social and political ramifications of “car culture”: “This dispersal of people into sprawling, fuel-chugging communities definitely has a cost.” If you think you’ve heard all this before, don’t worry—you absolutely have not heard the relentless barrage of accounts of driver’s education session after driver’s education session.
For me, the only break from this monotony was an unintentionally creepy moment “grinding away two dead hours between lessons, reading a copy of Teen in the 7-Eleven,” but, alas, even this is merely earnest “Continuing education … to further my knowledge of the teenage world.”
The root of the problem with this book is what the author refers to as a “clash” “between competing perspectives over what is acceptable.” One perspective holds that books, in order to be published, should show a certain merit; that a memoir, in order to stand on its own as a text, must be artfully framed. A life is shaped in the telling, animated—a boring life can certainly make an interesting book, but it takes work, the work of writing. Sullivan’s perspective seems to be that recitation—regurgitation, even, as it often seems to be—of events are sufficient enough, structured by a chronological bookends (he needs a job, he becomes a driving instructor, he leaves the “hypocritical” company) and veined with a moral critique (it is, after all, a “hypocritical” company, and Sullivan is “a good teacher,” “decent at the job,” with some opinions to pass on about what that means and why it matters). I do not believe that what Sullivan has done, in these pages, is a finished book. What we have, at best, is a rough draft, a rambling sketch needing the infusion of order, form—needing, in short, effort, hard work, an investment of time.
Life in the Slow Lane is a book that should not be read, but, worse, Sullivan has not yet written it.