Till the Wheels Fall Off

Brad Zellar
Coffee House Press ($17.95)

by Frank Randall

I met Brad Zellar, fittingly, via cassette, at the dawn of the 1990s, in one of the dozens of Minneapolis duplexes that housed aspiring bands at the time. Minneapolis was a city that managed to amplify its talent far beyond expectations for a town of its size, and it was a natural destination for young people who had grown up in the surrounding prairie towns. On this particular night, my own band had just come up from rehearsal in the basement, and while lingering about with assorted rockers, roadies and other characters, someone mentioned, “We just got a new tape from Brad. He’s been travelling in France.”

A boom box appeared and the room fell silent. Click-close-play and soon a Midwestern voice began a tale of being far from home, describing the strangeness of Paris days and sleepless nights filled with dreams of home. The narrator spoke directly to his fellow escapees from small-town Minnesota, but wrapped up the rest of us in his words as well.  Throughout a complete side of spontaneous prosody, he moved back and forth seamlessly from his encounters in a foreign land, to memories of hometown exploits that my fellow listeners were surely reliving with super-8 accuracy in their imaginations. The room was transported. Brad was their bard, and this voice in the night was clearly ready to explode a novel into the world.

Fast forward to the Minneapolis of 2022, where success or happiness or human connection isn’t a settled matter for anyone. Most of those basement bands are now nostalgia acts. And vinyl, the most musically pleasing of the audio formats, is making an unexpected comeback, much to the delight of listeners of a certain age. How did we get here? Well, no single novel could possibly describe such a far-ranging journey, but Till the Wheels Fall Off takes one path through the myriad gauntlets of the 1980s-90s that will win fans for decades to come.

Matthew Carnap is carrying a heavy load through his teen years: He lives in small-town Prentice, Minnesota, a town with few prospects for a record-collector-in-training—and one with no friends to boot. Matt never knew his father, who died in Vietnam before he was born. His sleep disorder is turning him into a zombie at school. His mother has been battling depression for his entire life. Her marriage to roller rink owner and obsessive record spinner Russ Vargo gave her lift at first, but lately the charm of his offbeat lifestyle is beginning to wear thin for her.

Screaming Wheels, the downtown roller rink that they operate and live in together, has opened up a new and magical world for Matt. Finally, a place to call home that actually feels like home: mirror balls, colored lights, and kids wheeling themselves into oblivion, all to the soundtrack of Russ’ precisely curated playlists. And thanks to Russ’ staunchly non-conformist outlook, Matt begins to curate his own playlist, for life. But there’s a downside: He’s well on the way to becoming one of the all-time outsiders his hometown has ever seen. Yet Matt has also picked up on Russ’ supreme trick of the trade: The right music does more than reflect your mood. It can change your life.

With challenges at school and parents not quite up to the task, Matt lands on the radar of social services, and his precarious situation could spiral out of control. With one misstep he could be sent to the local reform school. But his ultimate concern is how to stay connected with Russ, the best shot he has at having a father in his life. Luckily, there are a few folks still in Matt’s corner. With the help of his well-connected uncles (local legends Rollie, Big Leonard, and Mooze), his one friend, the streetwise Greenland Earle, and the Cowboy, an analyst who takes as much counsel as he provides, Matt receives some well-timed, lifesaving course corrections.

Time is fluid in Zellar’s roller-saga, and Matt’s narration rocks rhythmically between the 1980s world of a perplexed teen in his Screaming Wheels universe, and the 1990s world of a perplexed late-twenties soul seeker who has recently moved back home, trying to figure out what the hell happened, and what might be the path forward. Like listening to a favorite album at different times in your life (like Sly Stone’s Stand!, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the Replacements’ Let it Be, Neil Young’s Zuma, or Big Star’s Third—just a handful of the many albums referenced throughout Till the Wheels Fall Off), the novel offers the alternating effects of revelation and affirmation when life’s pivotal moments require a soundtrack, and Zellar is a master at both.

In the flash forward to the late 1990s, where vinyl and skating have already become anachronisms, Matt’s Uncle Rollie convinces him to move back to Prentice from Minneapolis, where he has made some unsteady progress toward an adult life. Rollie’s crew builds him a bachelor’s paradise of an apartment in the press box overlooking the town’s abandoned high school football field. With room for his prized collection of records and books—the objects that have defined his life thus far—it offers a stellar view of the town, his troubled past, and a possible future.

There is some meandering in the book’s first half, as Matt establishes the landscape of Prentice, his obsessive listening habits, and his family’s various histories. To any minimalists out there: If any of this exposition feels under-edited, it’s entirely appropriate for a narrator who lingers in a perpetual state of hypnagogia rather than a normal cycle of sleep. Zellar’s rendering is clinically accurate and revelatory. So take your time, savor the asides, and enjoy the ride. You’ll know when you’ve arrived because the payoff is undeniable. Zellar’s third act is a tour de force, where his fine ear for dialogue shines, our hero finally engages in a meaningful way with those around him (the crowd roars!), and the plot lines weave like a Brian Wilson score. 

This novel satisfies on so many levels. There are brave reckonings with mental health issues. There are pitch-perfect portrayals of teen uncertainty, longing, and confusion. And many times over, there are sublime moments of connection spurred by discovering a new song that that simply feels right and fits forever. To the casual witness, here’s a lonely kid surrounded by quirky characters—some maddeningly so—standing up to the big questions. How do we become ourselves? And is it worth all the trouble? The answers Matt uncovers move from hard lessons to pure magic, and the sometimes magical plot will only seem unreasonable if you’ve somehow managed to avoid spending any time in a small town. They are Petri dishes of the peculiar, where the oddest fellows are held in reverence by those that appreciate the beauty of the unlikely scenario. A novel about a sleep-deprived record collector who lives in a roller rink and then later, a football press box? Of course. With boundless empathy for his patient zero, Zellar makes it all work.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect to Zellar’s coming of age tale is that it doesn’t happen over the course of a wild teenage weekend, or a single school year. As for many of us, it takes years.

Brad Zellar has been a book hound, a record slinger, a sage of the baseball beat, a Thursday night bowler, a dog’s best friend, and an incredibly versatile writer who has produced a trove of quality work over the years, including the meditative novella House of Coates, the amusement park of a blog Your Man for Fun in Rapidan, and various poems and rants from his zine Scread.  You’ll have plenty of time to explore the backlist, and you will be richly rewarded if you do. But this is the novel that was ready to explode all those years ago, as heard on that spoken-word cassette sent from deep in the analog night. Sure, it took a little longer than we all thought it would, but the opportunity to finally press play on a long-anticipated mix tape from one of your favorite artists is always worth the wait. Now who’s up for a skate?

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