“Thy Shiny Car In The Night” by Nick Mamatas
Pete’s uncle always told him to keep his nose clean and not to get mixed up in the family business. It never seemed to be a problem for young Pete, who maintained some respect for the law, but it appears Uncle Peter has taught his nephew more than he anticipated. Everything changes when Pete learns the trouble his father is in. Pete may not know where his morals lie, but he does know one thing — nobody messes with family.
About the Author
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including The Last Weekend and I Am Providence. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, New Haven Review, and many other books and journals. An anthologist as well, Nick co-edited the ghost story anthology Haunted Legends and the cocktail-themed Mixed Up!
Written in first person, our narrator, Pete, begins by sharing a conversation with his dad, who tells his son, an avid reader, he used to know Jack Kerouak. “’When I was a young man, he was living right here in Northport.’” His father worked for waste management, but even as a young boy, he knew they were semi-connected to the mafia. His Uncle Peter had “a thick-tongued accent my father didn’t have, a penchant for tracksuits, a ridiculous silvery Cadillac, and rings too gaudy for even the Pope to wear.” But his dad was a little guy, mostly bald, and dressed like an accountant.
His uncle tells a story of when he and a friend beat up Kerouak for money, but felt bad when they found out writers don’t have any money, and ended up giving him fifty dollars. He tells his nephew not to tell Elaine, his fiancée, about that story. Then, he remembers his uncle’s wedding in 1984, and the men outside in their cars taking pictures and notes. No one told him they were federal agents, but he knew.
During this time, there is a kid named Ricky Kasso, “the high-school ‘Acid King.’” He sold drugs and worshiped Satan, even scrawled ‘Satan Lives’ into a boulderr, but spelled it ‘Satin Lives.’ He tortured and stabbed Gary Lauwers to death in the Aztakea woods for not saying he loved Satan. Northport is all up in arms now. Uncle Peter cuts his honeymoon short and he and the father seem to be making plans to take care of Kasso. “Satanists in the fucking woods,” says his dad, rarely angry. That’s when he starts to realize his dad is part of “Mothers and Fathers Italian Association” (MAFIA).
They start talking about drug awareness at school, and hang a big sheet in the hall on which students write positive things. Our narrator writes “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night” from On the Road. His mother starts tossing away contraband like records and books that seem Satanic. So he starts reading literature, and later writing it. He goes to Hofstra, a nearby college, and even gets a book published titled Satin Lives. Older now, he visits his big family and for holidays and tells his father how he feels about what he does. They argue for some time, his father defending his work and the son defending the government, though his argument is weak and he starts to see where his dad is coming from. The next summer, after the mother dies of breast cancer, the father rats out the Mafia, giving them evidence and telling them where bodies are buried. Now Uncle Peter plans to off him. “He took his oath seriously. Not like my dad, not like me.”
So he waits outside that night with a cigarette and Uncle Peter pulls up in his Cadillac, gets out and feigns a pleasant conversation with his nephew. In the middle of a response, the nephew waves his cigarette, but is really reaching for his baton which he uses to hit his uncle over the head. Later, he and his father are driving to California with a suitcase of unmarked bills and Uncle Peter in the trunk (still alive).
While Mamatas peppers this coming of age story with references to, directly and indirectly, the Mafia, The Sopranos TV show, and in the end, even a wink to Goodfellas, this ain’t that kind of story. The story is about a boy who is smart and because of his father and uncle, somewhat ironically, develops a love fondness for Kerouac and the ideas behind his book, “On The Road.” He does well in school and college and then decides to go “on the road.” Like Kerouac, he knows the best kind of surprises await him on the road, and after college, he crisscrosses the country doing odd jobs, writing, and developing a mind of his own. The tipping point comes not with Uncle Pete, but with the conversation he has with his father in the scene before. The father clinging desperately to what has fed his family and shaped his life, while his son has developed in ways his father doesn’t agree with or understand, but they both realize that should the conversation continue it would end poorly, so they let it fizzle. Only after his mother dies of breast cancer and his father starts informing the police, do things become clear about the kind of man Peter has become. While Kerouac may be his inspiration, his loyalty to family, especially his father, who knew Kerouac and made his life possible, means everything. Mamantas lets the scene where Uncle Pete is going to kill his brother, Pete’s father, unfold in the most unexpected way. Instead of waiting to be killed along with his father, Pete subdues his uncle, and he and and his father go on the road, like Kerouac, together, and with his Uncle Pete in the trunk, alive. Pete’s act of loyalty liberates his father from both his grief for his wife and his past, and father and son are more alike than either expected, they are family, and nothing is more important than that, which is why Uncle Pete is alive with the hope’s “that he’ll cool down around the time they reach Ohio.”