With a few exceptions, we all have at least one relative who loves to tell stories about their youth, whether we ask them to or not. We may be bored when we first hear their stories as children but we long to know them later in life. Besides, they make a great springboard for stories, poems, and essays. That’s one of the reasons why I created this week’s writing prompt and why I’m discussing a particular short novel. In fact, reading this book got me thinking about family stories and led to me setting such tales as the focus of the prompt. Today I’m talking about Driving Grandpa by John Redstand.
Driving Grandpa is a “fictionalized memoir,” as the Amazon description claims, of the last few months of Redstand’s grandfather’s life. A no-nonsense World War II veteran from the South, Redstand’s grandfather, Roy, leads an exciting life, even while in his 90s. He’s a hard worker and a man of honor, if not also stubborn, opinionated, and headstrong. With wit, a lively spring to his step, and an arsenal of war stories, Grandpa makes the most of every day right to the end of his life.
Redstand does not utilize a plot, not as we usually see in fiction, but that doesn’t mean the events depicted are random and unrelated. Much like the rest of us, Grandpa’s days feed into each other, and his war stories connect in one way or another. The driving force behind Driving Grandpa is not a desire to see how it ends, to see how some plot resolves, but for the joy of reading about Grandpa, his stories, and his dog, Old Gray, as he rides along with Redstand on his job cleaning foreclosed homes and switching out the locks.
Redstand pulled me in right from the first chapter, picking the perfect moment to introduce his grandfather: when he is driving to Grandpa’s house and finds the old man walking along an unfriendly (to pedestrians) road after thinking that Redstand’s uncles are trying to put him in a home. At first, I thought it was something straight out of a sitcom, but I’ll be darned if his ninety-something grandfather hadn’t just walked two miles from some senior’s apartments towards his home by himself. The rest of Grandpa’s days are just as hilarious and so unbelievable that you know it has to be true, or at least close to the truth.
My favorite aspect of the book, by far, are the voices of the narrator and Grandpa. They are genuinely, distinctly Southern; there’s no mistaking that. Both of them are also frank and blunt, although Redstand has a much better filter than Grandpa. I appreciate that Redstand doesn’t only state the facts of Grandpa’s last days but captures the essence of the characters and their relationship. It’s the same sort of Southern flare you’d expect to encounter with characters in a Flannery O’Connor story.
Driving Grandpa is an incredibly quick read. As the book clocks in at 133 pages and utilizes fast-paced, crisp writing, I could have easily finished it in a day if it weren’t for constant interruptions. That does not mean that Redstand’s work lacks depth. Instead, I became so engaged with Grandpa and his stories that I flew right through it.
To my great relief, I only found a couple minor proofreading errors. In fact, if I had not been on the look-out for problems, I might not have noticed any at all. The book has clearly been thoroughly edited and even the most professional books can contain errors after extensive proofreading, so these couple tiny errors do not detract from the reading whatsoever.
The one problem I have with Redstand’s Driving Grandpa is not the lack of plot, which I originally suspected I would have a problem with. Truth be told, I did not feel any deficiency in that area at all. Instead, my only real problem came at the very end of the book. The ending is rushed, but Redstand admits that and makes a very good point: it felt abrupt in real life and that’s how he portrayed it. I find, in that way, the ending fit Redstand’s writing style.
The last two lines, however, are cheesy. In a book about such a complex man, someone who is both likeable and flawed, to end with “God bless America. God bless the Greatest Generation” feels forced. Those last two lines, in my opinion, seem to be trying to force an agenda, something which I did not detect in the rest of the novel. I don’t have anything against the sentiment and, by all means, Redstand should include it if he wishes. Nevertheless, I think the ending would have resonated with me better if he had cut it off just before those two lines. Those two lines feel almost like Redstand doesn’t trust that the audience will get what they should out of his grandfather’s stories, and such perceived doubt on the part of the writer always bugs me.
Something else I wish Redstand had touched upon in the ending, although it doesn’t detract from the story as a whole, is Old Gray’s fate after Grandpa died. The poor dog had no one before Grandpa found him, where did he end up? Of course, it says a lot about Redstand’s writing that I came to care so much about the old dog (for full disclosure, I’m an animal lover anyway).
Overall, Driving Grandpa surprised me. I half-expected some sort of “my grandpa was a great veteran who could do no wrong” memoir but, right off the bat, Redstand shows that his grandfather was a great man but could definitely do wrong. The glimpses into Grandpa’s and Granny’s families had me on the edge of my seat laughing. I often had to stop reading to read one of the stories aloud to my mom, both because they were so funny and because they reminded me so much of the Southern half of my mom’s family (her mom’s side). If I do that, a writer is either doing something really wrong or really right; in this case, it has to be because Redstand did something really right.
To check out Driving Grandpa for yourself, follow this link to the Amazon page.