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CRC Blog Analysis on WHAT DRIVES MEN by Susan Tepper
“Between Two Men”
Susan Tepper’s novel What Drives Men was published on June 21, 2019 by Wilderness House Press
and book designed by Steve Glines.
(Left: Steve Glines Facebook logo photo)
The official summary of What Drives Men: “Susan Tepper's new novel is a picaresque romp. A Gulf War vet battling PTSD is tricked into chauffeuring millionaire country music legend Billy Bud Wilcox from Newark to Colorado. Everything goes wrong. Tepper expertly skewers a vast collection of characters on a wildly entertaining road trip from hell.”
Even though most of What Drives Men takes place on the roads between Newark, New Jersey and Colorado, Russell’s own struggles and traumas are not contained in the United States, but across the ocean to Iraq and across the waters in his own brain. What Drives Men has all of the conflicts that the book cover suggests: conflict within one’s self, between one another, and with nature itself. (Right: Susan Tepper. Copyright by Susan Tepper)
Susan Tepper describes the book cover as bringing all of these conflicts the main character Russell faces into one metaphysical image: “As for the cover, we did a lot of talking about it, me and my publisher Steve Glines, and we didn't want it to be an obvious cover, because the book doesn't start out as a road novel. It's about a man in search of himself, a man who has lost himself during the Gulf War. We also wanted the cover to elaborate on the title what drives men? And so we chose this cover of a man attempting to navigate an impossible universe, using a gondola, a universe with many moons and choices.We wanted a metaphorical cover that sums up Russell's confusion and ambivalence regarding his place in this world.” (Above Left: Susan Tepper's writing room where she wrote WHAT DRIVES MEN. Credit and Copyright by Susan Tepper)
Click on the link below to read more about Susan Tepper
Click on the link below to order What Drives Men from Amazon.
Russell is a disabled Gulf War Veteran suffering from PTSD, living in a childless marriage with wife Maggie. Then two things happen in his life that change it for the worse: while in a park he is attacked by a squirrel who he believes is a weapon of mass destruction, especially when the squirrel causes him to bleed. Then his wife Maggie decides to leave.
This sets the stage for the vulnerability of the soon to be 50-year-old man – he’s lost just about everything when he comes across an ad of a car service office requesting a driver to drive the legendary country-western singer Billy Bud Wilcox from Newark, New Jersey all the way to Denver, Colorado. His new boss Nina loans him her brother Leo’s vehicle, a bright and shiny black Lincoln Continental for the journey. There is just one requirement or warning about driving Leo’s car – if it receives even one scratch or has the scent of cigarette smoke, Russell is dead meat. Russell promises to treat Leo’s car with the utmost care and respect; and with a promise of a big tip from the legendary singer, Russell is set to go on the journey.
Billy Bud Wilcox otherwise known as BBW is an obscene, grouchy, mischievous, cussing, pussy obsessed old man who demands he gets his way at every possible moment, and, along with a suitcase containing $40,000 in case, it’s almost guaranteed BBW will get his way. But not with Russell, within the same day he meets BBW he is wishing he never took the job and considers BBW like an enemy, or a bee buzzing in his brain, and Russell cannot wait for this driving job to be finished.
Throughout the drive the two argue about everything and almost all of the time: when they are driving, when they stop to eat, stop to gas up, or stop at a hotel for the night. One of the many things they argue about is BBW’s inability to not flirt with women, oftentimes, calling each woman by the name Shelley Lee, and then sobbing for Shelley Lee to not leave him, which convinces Russell that the old man is senile.
Soon Russell is more than BBW’s driver but his brother’s keeper, making sure the old man doesn’t walk on ice, much less walk away and disappear. He even encourages BBW to bathe and shave but receives a big fat no.
The two men have their first decent or amicable conversation while driving through Pennsylvania.
“Tell me about the love of your life.” As if none of the morning drama had ever occurred.
“Are you talking to me?” said Russell.
“Who else is in this car? Just you and me. Me and you. Right or wrong?”
“I guess so.” Russell feeling uncomfortable. It didn’t strike him as the sort of thing he wanted to share with Billy.
“Come on, now. Don’t be shy. You saw my crocodile tears. Let’s see some a yers.”
“You want me to cry?”
The old man chucked. “Not cry. Bare your soul, boy.”
Bare your soul boy. A song he might’ve sung at the height of his career. Except Russell never bared his soul. Never. Asking Stan if he considered Maggie nice was about as far as he ever got baring his soul. He wasn’t even sure he had one. If people asked: Do you believe in God? Russell always said: I don’t know. No point agreeing to something that felt unimaginable, extreme, even far fetched. The day the squirrel jumped out of that tree, if someone had asked: Do you believe in God? He would’ve said: I believe in the devil. The devil jumped out of that tree and bit me. Of course nobody asked.
“Cat got your tongue?”
“What was the question?”
“You gotta ask twice, no point askin’.”
Russell groaned. “Do we have to talk about this?”
“Yep. If you want to clear the slate.”
Clear the slate! What a joke.
He listened to an ad on the radio for Listerine. He thought about telling the old man how he was walking along minding his own business when this rodent (as Clara called it) flies out of a tree – this virtual Batman attacking him on the neck.
“Her name is Maggie and she left me,” he said.
“Some time ago.”
“I don’t know. Winter I guess.”
“Ah-ha! I knew you had issues with winner. You don’t like it. Maybe you used to, now you don’t. You and Maggie husband and wife?”
Russell groaned again. “Do we have to do this?
“If you want to get your mind free. Or do you want to be daft in your old age?”
As if you’re not? thought Russell. “I feel like having a pepperoni pizza.”
The old man cracked up laughing. “That’s Maggie talkin’ from your gut. She’s still got you hot inside. Still smokin’ for her. You want to eat her pepperoni, that’s what you want.” He made obscene noises with his lips.
Things completely change when they come across three drifters in a cowboy bar in Ohio: pretty blonde Sonia, African American beauty Peaches, and blonde-headed man Tad. At BBW’s insistence and Russell’s strong displeasure, the three join Russell and BBW on their journey to Colorado, in what they believe is BBW’s lucrative ranch where a white stallion is waiting for them to ride upon. BBW is ecstatic to be sitting in the back seat between Sonia and Peaches while Tad sits upfront with Russell; the whole time Russell regretting he took on this job and as impatient as ever for the job to end.
Soon the five individuals must face the greatest conflict of all while they visit Iowa’s Crane Pelon Falls. By the time Russell drives to Nebraska, he reexamines his and BBW’s relationship: Are they enemy or foe or something in the middle?
Susan Tepper has been a writer for twenty years and is the author of nine published books. She writes in all genres, with stories, poems, interviews, essays and opinion columns published extensively worldwide. An award-winning author, Tepper has been nominated nineteen times for the Pushcart Prize and has received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the novel ‘What May Have Been’ (currently being adapted for the stage as The Crooked Heart).
Her story "Africa...then" was published in Gargoyle Magazine 2020 issue #72 and has been nominated for the Best American Mystery/Suspense Series. Other awards include Second Place Winner in Story/South Million Writers Award, 7th Place Winner in the Francis Ford Coppola sponsored Zoetrope Contest for the Novel (2003), Best Story of 17 Years of Vestal Review, a nomination for NPR’s Selected Shorts Series, and other honors.
Additionally, Tepper has been an editor at Wilderness House Literary Review and Istanbul Literary Review. For seven years she was panel moderator of the SMALL PRESS PANEL at Marymount Manhattan College Writers Conference, which eventually morphed into the Hunter College Writers Conference. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, ran for a decade, and showcased the talents of our literary stars as well as many first time authors.
Before settling down to the writing life, she worked as an actor, singer, flight attendant, marketing manager, overseas tour guide, TV producer, interior decorator, rescue worker and more. She blames it all on a high interest range. Tepper is a native New Yorker.
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