Reviewed by Laura Brooks
Struggles with self-identity, wanting to be anywhere else but home, and an absurd amount of love for music are a few concepts I think I can speak for everyone on. We all deal with these. We all face these struggles. It’s universal. This is no exception for Matthew Carnap, the protagonist in the novel, Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar. As the story is told during the early 2000s from middle-aged Matthew, it moves back and forth through time as he recollects his memories of his time growing up in small town Minnesota during the 80s. Years after he moved away and worked on a condom distributing road tour (I know, you just have to read it), he is summoned back to his hometown with the unrequited desire to reconnect with someone who helped shape him into who he is today. But he is faced with struggles and roadblocks along the way that make him question if it was worth coming back to the place where he once had a completely different, altering, life.
Not a stranger to the literary world, Zellar has had many works published. He has worked with photographers, magazines, and newspapers as well as had multiple books published. That comes as no surprise as this novel had me hooked from the first few chapters. Zellar is able to take readers on a self-reflecting journey through a character who shares traits with an audience around the world. This realistic fiction novel introduces readers to the idea of addressing self-discovery through an outlet of something that they love; Matthew’s is music and his memories of his stepfather. His stepfather, Russ, serves as the mysterious character who we know little about through most of the novel. He is Matthew’s hero, but also his bane. He is the man who gave Matthew his love for music, and the man who kept secrets. He is the man who raised Matthew as his own son, and the one who abandoned him when he needed him most. Matthew must face questions such as, what do I find my identity in? What do I want out of life? How was I shaped into who I am today? And who do I want to be? As readers navigate Matthew’s journey alongside him, Zellar helps his audience face the same questions through storytelling.
Reading this novel, I was touched with how I could relate to Matthew in a more introspective way than other characters in other books I have read. With the setting taking place before the digital era, it kept me interested because the protagonist’s span of life was just before my own. I was able to understand Matthew desperately trying to not conform to the world around him, but then questioning if it would be so bad if he did. I could relate to his love of music and wanting to discover the meaning behind every song, because he knows music was such a big part of who he is, and he wants to know more. The relatability and uniqueness of this story is something so incredibly beautiful and different that anything I have read. It is so subtle with the life size questions and topics that need to be spoken and thought about it in today’s world. Zellar carefully and gracefully approaches the concept of identity for his readers with loss, love, music, and roller skates.