Crash Club By Henry Gregor Felsen

His answer to Outlaw’s bid for power was a new kind of hot rod club- he called it CRASH CLUB!

Background: Henry Felsen began his career writing military adventure stories for juvenile readers during World War II, but earned his cult following for a series of hot rod-themed cautionary tales in the 1950s. Titles like Hot Rod, Street Rod, Ragtop and Road Rocket are the literary equivalent of the Highway Safety Foundation’s driver’s ed films of the era: grim and gory moralizing with the intention to scare teen drivers straight.

The Plot:  The book opens a few weeks into the fall semester at Raccoon Forks (Anystate, USA) High School, with Principal Enos Lamont observing the incoming students and ruminating at length on the comings and goings of various teenage fads that he has observed over his 25 years of teaching.

Drag Racing is the latest, and the Big Men On Campus have taken to painting up their cars in gaudy designs and wearing gaudier clothes, participating in morning drags to the school parking lot, where they meticulously record, discuss and argue over the mileage in their driver’s logs.

Principal Lamont is indulgent, a knowing observer of the tide of student trends, whatever is the big thing in June will still be going in September but dead in the water by Thanksgiving (he wistfully recalls the year that “getting good grades” was the key to popularity):

So far Raccoon Forks had been a lucky school.

It had escaped the vogue of drunkenness that had taken over Belmont High for a year, and the rage to experiment with “happy pills” that had ravaged Meeker Consolidated. One year, Raccoon Forks girls had to wear “engagement” rings to rate socially, but the fad had never developed into the rash of marriages that had swept over Chester City. Nor had Clayville’s rash of petty thievery and “Swiper’s Clubs” shown up or Van Buren’s roving gang fights, or Laurelton’s promiscuity.

The hot rodders are introduced next, led by amiable everyboy Mike Revere, most of whom have nicknames based on a physical characteristic (Stretch, Heavy) or personality trait (Miser, Sissy); that will serve as character development.

The rumor that has the whole town buzzing is that Raccoon Forks is under consideration to be the site for the new factory of Randian Capitalist Charles Galt (ha! -ED.) which will specialize in vaguely described “hush-hush stuff for the government”. Galt is impressed with backwater Raccoon Forks because he considers it advantageous to “spread the work around more, and we’re not so vulnerable to enemy attack”.

The adults of Raccoon Forks are already lining up to kiss Galt’s ass for the economic boom the factory will bring to town, and Principal Lamont has already calculated that the school taxes alone will amount to $30,000 a year, enough to buy the school of the future and put Raccoon Forks into the educational and athletic big time!

So when Galt arrives to register his unassuming son, David, for school, Lamont is confident that the deal is as good as done, especially when Galt starts talking about the many improvements his philanthropical impulses can bring to the district.

The only thing that bothers him is the note that he received from David’s former high school principal in Capital City, as well as a mysterious note in Chekov’s Permanent Record…

A lot of the writing is very Vintage Scholastic (e.g. unnecessarily long winded), and especially the passages from the Principal’s point of view are in danger of drifting into Prom Trouble territory (are you really going to gain young readers by constantly preaching to them about how dumb teenagers and everything they love are?)

Felsen seems to be counting on Car Talk to keep teenage boys interested, so every few paragraphs the plot screeches to a halt so Mike & co. can go on something like this (in which Mike advises his parents on the purchase of a new car):

“As heavy as that car is, there’s no point in spending money to make it hot. The basic big eight ought to give you all the performance you need. And you’ll be wanting the automatic transmission to make things easier for Mom. That’s a pretty good mill, Dad, and even with the weight and the power options, that new ‘rat gear’ will move you out in a hurry any time you have to go.”

Trouble starts when Dave Galt shows up in a new fuel injected Chevy, a sleekly cool car that makes the RFHS’s drag club look garish. Pretty soon everyone is following Dave’s lead and repainting their cars in simple metallic colors, spending every morning going over them with a chamois in the parking lot and driving like schoolmarms. Dave’s silent coup is complete when he steals Donna Whittier, the most popular girl in school, away from Mike.

Mike seethes, over both the loss of status and his faithless girlfriend.  Injury is added to insult when lowly freshman Cecil “Squirrel” Taplinger challenges him to a race, and bangs up his car sans insurance to boot. Donna spitefully writes up the incident in the school paper’s gossip column, dubbing Mike the president of the school’s latest fad, Crash Club.

Initially enraged by both Donna’s mockery and the public association with Squirrel, Mike then decides to win back his old standing (and Donna) by out-cooling Dave and making Crash Club a real thing, showing up at school the next week with a complicated system of recognition involving Army surplus campaign ribbons:

“If you notice, I have a battle star on my ribbon. That’s to show crack-ups. A star for each crack-up, on the area ribbon. If a guy gets hurt, he gets a Purple Heart ribbon., with a star for each succeeding injury. That way, you can tell by looking at a club member’s ribbons and stars where he’s driven, how many accidents he’s had, and how many times he’s been injured.”

There was nothing wrong with wearing ordinary clothes and driving carefully in shiny cars, but it didn’t do anything. It was new or impressive. But the Crash Club, as Mike described it, had everything. That was the kind of thing that would make people sit up and take notice. Belonging to something that would shock people the way a Crash Club would was something. Wearing campaign ribbons would make you somebody.

Obviously, now the pendulum has swung back in Mike’s favor, Dave has to try and win the boys of RFHS back to his side, and the reader is dropped hints about a dark past and warning from Galt, Sr. about how this is the LAST car he is getting…

Things (FINALLY!) come to a head after RFHS suffers a big loss in the final football game of the season and a player from the rival Belmont High dares appear in enemy territory. Mike dares Dave to live up to his Capital City “Outlaw” nickname and box in the interloper’s car at the local drive-in. When both cars end up smashed in the street, Mike orchestrates a massive cover-up, blaming the accident on the “theft” of a stop sign.

Apparently, Belmont High doesn’t take this kind of thing laying down, and after the dance they challenge Mike to a drag race outside of town, which ends with Mike plowing the family car into a freight train. In the impressively gruesome climax, Mike is paralyzed, Donna is disfigured, and DAVE IS STRAIGHT-UP DECAPITATED!

We also learn that the content of Dave’s Permanent Record reveals that the school psychologist diagnosed him as a straight-up sociopath and he had manslaughtered two people (including his girlfriend) in separate accidents in Capital City.

Convalescing in his hospital room, Mike learns that THE ENTIRE TOWN is mad at him for ruining their lives because Galt is taking his factory elsewhere. He learns this through a black-bordered front page editorial in the local paper entitled WHO KILLED THE DREAMS? (spoilers: MIKE REVERE! IT WAS MIKE REVERE THAT KILLED THE DREAMS!)

And man, I really wish this is where the book ended, on the ultimate downer of paralyzed Mike being blamed for the town not getting the secret government factory.

But, instead we get a quickie coda in which Galt Sr.  talks things over with Mike man-to-man, and decides that Dave’s real problem (aside from being a sociopath) was that he was always trying to fit in and probably, right before his head was separated from his body by a freight train, he felt like he fit in with the cool kids for the first time in his life. Galt announces he will be building his secret government factory in Raccoon Forks after all, and come September the students will be attending the super-deluxe new David Galt Memorial High School (!!!!)

Also it turns out that Mike’s paralysis is psychosomatic and he and Donna get back together even though she has a gnarly face-scar and dentures now. The end.

Sign It Was Written In 1958 Department:

Galt does not care for socialized anything:

“They get the newspaper here early in the morning,” he suddenly grumbled. “Why the devil can’t they deliver the mail before noon? Difference between a private enterprise and a government operation, that’s all.”

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One Response to Crash Club By Henry Gregor Felsen

  1. Cee says:

    I FLOVE this book. The lurid description of the final accident (I think Donna’s mouth was “wreathed in blood”) and where they wreck the rival’s car in the parking lot absolutely riveted me as a child. And as an adult, it’s surprisingly well-crafted–Felsen manages many different POVs (the principal musing over the different fads, the parents’ frustration with Mike’s car obsession, Donna’s worry over how to maintain status, even Mike’s date at the end (where she “smiled mysteriously at her knees”). Such a great relic of the ’50s!

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