Review: Motorman by Robert E. Dunn

Motorman - Robert E. Dunn

After murdering a prostitute, junkyard car repairman Johnny hits the road and finds himself in even deeper trouble than he bargain for. Stuck in the Ozarks, he finds himself holed up at an auto repair-shop, where his talents are demand because he "has the good hands," and surrounded by half-metal men and a weird blue ooze.

If you haven't glommed onto it yet, Motorman is a weird novella. Although it has a few really good moments, the highlight of which is some exceptional body horror in the last couple chapters, it is not without its fair share of problems (needless to say, your mileage may vary.)

I should note here that I am not in anyway a "car guy." I don't really get the appeal of sports cars - yeah, they're nice, but... so what? For me, a car is an overly expensive tool that I can never stop investing in because it always needs gas and oil and brakes and a host of other pain in the ass things that cost way too much money, and which gets me from Point A to Point B. If I lived in an area that had consistent and reliable public transit, like Chicago or New York, I would happily ditch my ride in favor of a subway pass. If electric cars had battery life that could survive hundreds of miles on a single charge, I would be pretty pleased in knowing that I don't have to get another freaking oil change or deal with the artificially inflated prices at the pump. So yeah, I am not at all a car guy. However, I am not above having my curiosity piqued by gorgeous cover art and exclamatory text promising mad science and alien goo.

Johnny, though, certainly is a car buff. I presume author Robert E. Dunn is as well, but if he isn't the technical details and junkyard information at least rang true enough to my ignorant eyes, and I'm more than willing enough to take his word for it when it comes to engine blocks and horsepower and whatever the hell else he threw in there.

What didn't ring quite well enough, though, were some of the more supernatural/fantastical elements Dunn inserts into the narrative, primarily the ooze. What the heck was that stuff? Where did it come from? What does it want? Why does it do what it does, and how was it discovered? Like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Motorman completely eschews any explanation for the hows and whys of the science behind the horror.

The ooze and the dead hooker are largely MacGuffins so that Dunn can get to the meat of the story, but I still found myself wanting more details and more consequences. I understand Johnny killing the girl in a fit of rage and fleeing the scene during the book's opener, but I kept expecting his anger management issues to play a more central role to his character, or for his murderous actions to carry some weight beyond the opening segment. Instead, Johnny spends the majority of the book being a really placid grease-monkey. He's also a hapless loser who instantly falls in love with any girl who even so much as gives him a side-eye. I just wish there had been a bit more range to his character, and more turbulence to his clearly troubled emotional state and immaturity. He spends a little much of the book being an observer for my liking, although the few times he is allowed to get his hands dirty it's to great effect.

As far as the Damaged People! thing goes, I dug the heck out of this segment of the premise. This isn't quite spoiler territory, I don't think, but the local doctor that Johnny ends up working for has devised a way to merge man and machine thanks to the mysterious ooze. That's pretty cool! And it brings about a couple deliriously trippy segments throughout the book that I loved a lot.

This is a quick read, and I found it to be enjoyable over all. It's not high art, and it's not completely flawless in execution, but it is a good bit of B-movie, grindhouse fun. And the events leading into finale are pretty dang good, particularly during the last couple chapters of this short book. There are several really cool ideas on display here, and I completely dug Dunn's Frankenstein-ian riff on greasers and hot rods. Is greaser gothic even a thing? Maybe it should be. I'd be more than willing to check out another!

[Note: I received an uncorrected advanced proof copy of this title for review.]