Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa is translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. It’s a coming of age book set in a small, rural Dutch village and featuring Frankie. As the book opens Frankie has just come out of a long coma after an accident. You don’t get to hear how he had the accident until much later in the book but it actually doesn’t matter as what is more important is that Frankie is severely disabled. He is unable to walk or talk, has regular spasms, cannot toilet himself and has only the use of one arm. Although his condition improves as the book progresses Frankie is still severely disabled at the end of the book – this is not a story about a miraculous cure. Although he is frustrated by his condition Frankie appears not to be angry and rarely whines about it.
Frankie uses his working arm to record his life and the life of his friends and this book is told in the first person. While he was unconscious a new family have arrived in town, unfortunately crashing into the local diner and killing the father (there is a lot of dark humour in this book). The son of the family is Joe Speedboat – this is a name that he gives himself because he claims that his parents have misnamed him. Joe is an anarchic person who is always inventing new things and moving on to new projects. He befriends Frankie and involves him in his schemes – in the end they will both be enraptured by the same young woman.
Quite a lot of the book is about Frankie’s arm and how he uses it to write, make briquettes and eventually to take part in arm wrestling tournaments. Joe is with him for the physical activity but Frankie also has his own interests including watching boats, As Frankie begins to move ahead in his life, albeit a restricted one, the village is threatened by the advent of a large motorway which will cut it off from the rest of the Netherlands and leave only difficult access.
I found this a difficult book in many ways although the writing is straightforward enough. I really enjoyed the way that the author handled Frankie’s disability and issues that were caused for him. I was pleased that the book at no time veered into sentimentality. I thought some of the fantastical elements were amusing such as Joe’s stepfather and his trip to Africa and Joe’s participation in a rally. Some of the fantastic elements didn’t really fit in for me though – I wasn’t sure about the aeroplane building, for example. The inclusion of Eastern mysticism in an arm wrestling competition was unusual but left me a bit lost. I think the problem was that there were too many ideas and themes rattling around in the story and they didn’t all fit together to make a coherent tale. That is only my opinion and the novel may be more to your taste – I understand that it is very popular in the Netherlands. In the end though, it was not for me.