Arc of Triumph by Paul Ehrmann

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Drive would have been a very different movie if it took place on the set of ‘Ello ‘Ello. Arc of Triumph is a historical race car book wherein some guy is surrounded by people and events more interesting than himself.

The story begins in 1937 in France where our hero Alex starts working as a mechanic for the eccentric car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti. In those days, if you wanted to sell fast cars to rich people, you made them go around and around in a circle very quickly. If they did circles quickly enough, they would get a special award, and the rich people would be convinced that the car was very fast indeed. Alex starts as a mere mechanic, but quickly becomes a driver when the old driver quits because Alex is too sassy. I had no idea this was a viable career trajectory, and I am mad that nobody told me. This is also when Girl makes her first appearance, and Alex falls in love with her.

A whirlwind montage of races culminates in a heroic almost victory against the Mercedes driver, who is backed by the Nazi government. Alex has to push his failing roadster over the finish line like Fred Flintstone, proving his determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Meanwhile Girl exists hot. Apparently she eats sexily? Or our protagonist thinks the way she eats is really appealing. It never comes up again. She does get a little characterization, in that she is an aspiring artist working for Bugatti, and a terrible cook with a violent temper. In other words, standard love interest. Because I was some kind of puppy-murderer in a former life, every time I read one of these books the sex scenes turn out to be excruciatingly detailed. This time we are treated to explanations of how Alex’s technique differs when using only the tip versus the whole shaft. I could have been a veterinarian.

Because girl, Girl is now upset that her sexy race car driver boyfriend works in such a dangerous business. She makes him an ultimatum: stop racing and go away with her to Paris (yes, nice safe Paris in 1937), or the two of them are through. Well, our boy is married to the asphalt so he competes in the Grand Prix, where he learns that Girl has taken some other lucky dude to Paris in his place.

The timeline now jumps to 1942, in the middle of the Nazi occupation in the north and the Vichy government in the south. Supplies are tight and times are tough. Bugatti agrees to make weapons for the Germans to keep his factory open. Alex has a Jewish friend, Louis, and by the laws of narrative fiction Alex makes it clear to us that he is just fine with the Jews. But you know who’s not fine with the Jews? Go on, guess! The Nazis comes for him, and Louis runs off. Someone mouths off that he’ll probably end up in a work camp, where he won’t last long because Jews can’t keep up with physical labor, to which Alex says that Jews built the pyramids. This stood out to me because it was a joke on Family Guy, not sure what else to say about that.

Bugatti is still focused on sales, and sends Alex to Paris to see if anyone there is still rich enough to buy a metal box that goes several times the legal speed limit and doesn’t have seatbelts. This is our hero’s lowest point, and he spends his time in Paris drowning his sorrows in alcohol and a dancing girl slash escort named Lulu. Unlike Girl, Lulu gets a name because I’m pretty sure “Lulu” is the title of the literary trope she belongs to. One night Alex sees a car stop in front of two German soldiers in the streets of Paris, shoot them dead, and then speed off. In that brief moment, he recognizes the shooter. It’s Louis, now working for the French Resistance. It turns out, the Resistance will soon have need of an ally with access to a factory that happens to be making German weapons.

Please note that this is only my understanding of the plot. Large sections of the book are written in a secret language to which I have no access. It is a language with words like “flange plate” and “tachymetrics.” From real life I know this language has a signed component, consisting mostly of constantly pulling up one’s trousers, and spitting on the ground. The only thing I can tell you about cars is that most days my body feels like the Bluesmobile hurtling toward Daley Plaza. Presumably very thrilling things are happening when the cars go around and around very fast, but I can only relate to you the glimpses that peek out through the jargon. Those glimpses become more common when the action leaves the racing stadium thing and goes back to personal drama.

I have always wondered what’s going through the minds of Girl in books. I mean, imagine you start dating someone because he’s a rocket-powered toothbrush tester, and then once receiving either the tip or the shaft, deciding that the macho risk-taking that made him an intriguing commodity is now a relationship deal-breaker. Did you not put two and two together that rocket-powered toothbrushes are dangerous? Did you seriously not understand the difference in technique between the tip and the shaft? This happens so often in books and TV shows that it has to be based on something. I assume it’s because your average young man writing a book has been trained that women have two modes: slut and mom. And in recent times, slutty mom. I wonder what it would be like if the much more thoroughly researched cars in this book followed the same logic:

“I put it into eighth gear (N.B. Sorry, I still don’t know cars), and slammed on the gas, pushing the engine to the breaking point. Less than a hundred meters from the finish line, my Bugatti 55 responded to my recklessness by turning into the other type of vehicle, a tractor. Why do cars always do that just when the race is getting good?”

But I must admit, Arc of Triumph is much less unimaginative when it comes to the protagonist’s journey. We get just enough weakness to humanize him, and just enough moral decision making to keep him an active, if reluctant, participant in the political events going on around him. He’s an anti-hero in the original sense, i.e. someone without heroic qualities who nonetheless wants to do good, not an unreformed jerk. Like all historical protagonists, we have to be spoon-fed reassurances that he doesn’t share the Nazis’ views on race, but at least at first he mostly hates the Nazis because he wants to beat the Mercedes team, which is a refreshingly selfish way to make your hero oppose the bad guys. Overall, Arc of Triumph was an above-average thriller with a setting that is probably very interesting to people who like cars and World War II. The five dollar price point is a little more than I like to spend on these things, but it’s hardly exorbitant. It would make a great gift for that Boomer car buff in your life. But be prepared to know, for the rest of your life, that the two of you know about the tips and shafts passage.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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