Vehicles define family’s journey in Melissa Stephenson’s debut memoir

Melissa Stephenson’s “Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back” is a debut memoir that explores a woman’s relationship with her family and dead brother through the cars that came into their lives.

Vehicles seemed to mark every major event in Indiana native Stephenson’s family. Her father began dating her mother just after he bought a used Chevy; her mother lost both her father and beloved boyfriend to automobile accidents; and her younger brother Matthew was born just after her parents settled on a Toyota sedan to replace the Fiat Stephenson’s father had bought on a whim. Later, after Matthew committed suicide in 2000, the author took possession of his truck, “the only thing of material value my brother left behind.” The author begins the book around the time of her childhood, before her parents “bootstrapped (their) way over the poverty line and into a facsimile of a middle-class lifestyle.” Her most important relationship was with Matthew, whose love/hate feelings for her were “complicated at best.” Their shared desire to escape the Midwest took them on road trips and to schools outside Indiana and brought them into contact with the vehicles — Saabs, Fords, Vanagons — that defined their respective youths. But where Stephenson’s travels led to her finding a stable husband and her calling as a writer, Matthew’s travels led down dark roads that included alcohol and drug abuse and a brief, destructive marriage to Corey Parks, the notorious bass player for Nashville Pussy. Yet no one in the family knew just how troubled her brother was until he took his life. Shaken to the core, Stephenson freed herself from the wreckage of Matthew’s suicide by driving straight into the heart of family dysfunction and coming to terms with the unwitting role she and her family had played in his death. Lyrical and eloquent, Stephenson’s book is a journey of pain, beauty and healing that also celebrates the life of her tragically misunderstood brother.

“Driven” is raw, tender and uniquely envisioned.

(Stephenson will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information:

Small-town horrors

After a young man loses his little brother, he searches for him desperately while working as a stocker at a grocery store in Dathan Auerbach’s “Bad Man.”

This nasty little slice of Southern gothic is Auerbach’s second novel, following his popular Reddit-fueled, self-published debut. This time, he lands at Doubleday’s horror-heavy Blumhouse Books imprint. A prologue finds Ben and his 3-year-old brother, Eric, in a grocery store in a desolate stretch of North Florida — and just as surely as he was there, Eric disappears. Five years later, Ben is a wreck, a heavy, slow adolescent who’s partially lame from a childhood accident. His father is largely absent, and his stepmother is crippled by grief. Out of desperation, Ben gets a job as a stocker at the very store where his brother vanished. What follows is a heady, puzzling and oddly gripping exercise in depicting a small town as a macabre place filled with everyday horrors ranging from a child’s stuffed animal to a gruesome industrial accident. Ben is under the thumb of the shop’s cruel manager, Bill Palmer. He also has co-workers, a strange cast that includes his buddies Marty and Frank, the bakery’s misanthrope, Miss Beverly, and a cashier named Chelsea. Also keeping one eye on Ben is local policeman James Duchaine, whose motivations are hard to discern. Through it all, Ben remains buoyed by hope, about which Auerbach writes: “It doesn’t fix anything. It just numbs and reassures, until it can consume the desperate for the sake of its own brilliant incandescence. And as hope comforts us, it becomes easier and easier to forget that it too was in the jar that Pandora carried. It’s the one horror of the world that wasn’t loosed when she opened the lid. It’s the one horror that lives in us.”

An unreliable protagonist and a nebulous finale may put some off, but credit Auerbach for keeping readers on the edges of their seats for the whole ride.

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