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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Joe Speedboat

Tommy Wieringa

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To purchase Joe Speedboat

Title: Joe Speedboat
Author: Tommy Wieringa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 319 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Joe Speedboat - US
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  • Dutch title: Joe Speedboat
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

B : too meandering -- but ultimately close to winning

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 26/8/2009 Nicholas Tucker
NZZ A 9/12/2006 Wolfgang Lange
Publishers Weekly A+ 8/2/2010 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Joe Speedboat is never just another would-be inspirational read about overcoming adversity. (...) Expertly translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Tommy Wieringa's novel offers a rewarding journey into the unfamiliar. It is also witty, thoughtful and surprisingly tender" - Nicholas Tucker, The Independent

  • "Joe Speedboat (...) hält, was sein Anfang verspricht: ein starkes Stück Literatur, eine fulminante Geschichte, wunderbar geschrieben, amüsant zu lesen - umwerfend und fesselnd nicht allein wegen der Figuren, die der Autor aufbietet und in diverse Abenteuer verstrickt, sondern mehr noch wegen der überraschenden Wendungen, die der Roman in seinem Verlauf nimmt. Es gibt ungeheuer witzige Episoden und funkelnde Anekdoten, Dialoge, die es in sich haben, Pointen, die punktgenau treffen, Details, die irritieren - vorgetragen von einer Stimme, wie sie in deutschen Landen selten zu hören ist" - Wolfgang Lange, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A) brilliant coming-of-age story with an outlandish twist (.....) There are more coming-of-age novels than dikes in Holland, but this wonderfully weird novel is not one to miss." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Joe Speedboat is narrated by Frankie Hermans, who explains his situation early on: after a horrific accident he was in a coma for some 220 days and now finds himself nothing more than: "one good arm attached to forty kilos of dead meat". He's still in high school, and returns to school after his accident, though he is severely handicapped. While he's constantly coming up against his very real limitations -- he can't really communicate verbally, among many other things -- he manages to describe his life as rather ordinary. His handicap is, obviously, defining, but it's remarkable in how many other ways his life is very average (and how quickly the reader comes to feel that way: this isn't handicap fiction). In part that has to do with the general sullen, introspective teen-age, where monosyllabic responses to the outside world aren't that uncommon; indeed, Frankie seems very much your average teen. There's some self-pity but not all that much: for the most part he, and those around him, just get on with life.
       One thing that helps is that others treat him reasonably normally, too. One person in particular, a new student who calls himself 'Joe Speedboat'. Joe's family name is Ratzinger, but he's adopted the name Joe Speedboat for himself, and he won't tell anyone his real name (and forbids his mother to reveal it). It helps make for an aura of extraordinariness about him, which stands out in Lomark, a tiny rural dump near the German border, as peripheral as any Dutch town can get (and which threatens to get even more isolated and peripheral, when the new highway looks to bypass it completely). Of course, it's dangerous to build up an aura around something as simple as a name, and there's the danger that it will be punctured if the real name is ever discovered or revealed .....
       Frankie is fascinated by the new kid, but his physical limitations -- he can wheel himself around, he can scribble with his one good hand, but that's about the extent of it -- make it difficult for him to really socially engage with anyone. Still, Frankie becomes part of Joe's loose circle of friends -- and his one good arm, well-trained from all the wheeling around, comes in handy for one of Joe's typical grandiose projects, building an airplane from scratch. As Frankie sees it: "It wasn't so much that Joe was an unusual kid: he was a force unleashed on the world." And Frankie is happy to occasionally stand somewhere in Joe's shadow.
       Joe Speedboat proceeds very loosely, almost irritatingly so. There are grand projects -- Joe's airplane, the boat -- a felucca -- that his mother's Egyptian lover builds (and sets sail in ...), Joe's participation in the Paris-Dakar rally in a really souped-up bulldozer -- but there's also a sameness to everything, with the everyday seen as equally significant. The narrative putters along, from one thing to the next, often with very little follow-through. It doesn't offer the quick easy satisfactions one would expect from a story with these characters and situations -- but that ultimately also works quite well: despite some of the unlikely occurrences, the book is convincingly everyday, conveying the feel of life as it progresses, in which even what stands out might haunt but also fades quickly from the surface, overtaken by everyday routine and concerns.
       Frankie's devastating accident is only addressed well into the book, and that then makes more clear how this is a coming-of-age story, with one catastrophic misstep early on. Frankie also keeps a detailed record of his life, filling notebooks, a form of coming to grips with things; like his account, it is not an overly indulgent outpouring, but rather largely just a record.
       Early on Joe is impressed by Frankie's one strong arm: "That arm of yours might take you places", he tells him. For a while after he graduates Frankie uses his strength to press old newspapers into briquettes for heating fuel, a small little business of his own:

Pressing newspaper into fuel was my mission. I couldn't imagine anything better.
       Joe has bigger things in mind, however, and wants to make an arm-wrestler out of Frankie. Eventually -- when he finds out his briquette business is more illusion than real -- Frankie takes him up on his offer, and so begins an unusual but relatively successful career. Frankie dedicates himself to his new calling -- finding: "I liked arm wrestling so much, I guess, because of the cheerful stupidity of the whole thing."
       So there are competitions, and trips abroad. There's also a girl, of course. And lots of alcohol along the way.
       Joe Speedboat takes a lot of odd turns, and for the most part floats very simply by (winding up who knows where) -- like Papa Africa's felucca. It's surface-fiction, but it shows a whole lot of surface, and it's not superficial. The writing is also very agreeable; once one has settled into it, and is willing to accept that incidents will just fade rather than be explored with all their ramifications, it is quite enjoyable. It's not surprising that the book is often considered a Young Adult title, since it has much of the YA-fiction simplicity to it, but there's certainly substance here as well.
       Joe Speedboat does meander around too much, and can feel contrived and forced (Paris-Dakar in a bulldozer ?) -- including in its postscript-ending -- but there's a lot that's winning to it too. Not bad at all.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 July 2010

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Joe Speedboat: Reviews: Tommy Wieringa: Other books by Tommy Wieringa under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Ducth author Tommy Wieringa was born in 1967.

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