Skipper has a beaten-up 1949 Ford which he loves fixing up. It is in pieces, but Skipper is still proud of it, and rather than going off to college Skipper has decided to stay at home and work at the power plant so that he can put all his money into fixing up his car. The shed where Skipper works on the car is the only place where he and Jack ever really talk or bond. Over Jack’s first summer in Chinook, the car starts coming together, and Skipper covers it in glossy paint and outfits it with hubcaps and fancy exhaust pipes. The interior still needs fixing, and Skipper plans to take the car down to Tijuana to have the work done there for cheap. Jack asks if he can come along, and Skipper says he’ll think about it.
Skipper’s ugly car, which he is renovating from the outside in, is in many ways a metaphor for the larger shifts—impossible ones—taking place in his family. Dwight, the patriarch of the family, is ugly inside and out; he has tried to change himself outwardly to lure Rosemary in, but has been unable to disguise who he truly is inside. Skipper’s fervent need to fix up his car mirrors Dwight’s harried attempts to disguise himself.
Jack begins fantasizing about the adventures the two of them will have in Mexico and begins telling his classmates at school all about his impending trip. When the subject comes up at dinner one evening, though, Skipper says he won’t bring Jack—he’s bringing one of his own friends along.
Jack wants to grow closer to his new “family,” but finds his efforts rebuffed at every turn.
After Skipper leaves for Mexico, Jack feels as if the room they share is painfully empty. In addition to missing Skipper, Jack also misses his father—though Dwight often makes snide comments about the man, Jack will not let anyone tarnish the image of his father he has in his mind. The older Tobias, looking back on this time in his life, reflects on “advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent”—being missed even when one’s contribution is minimal. He wouldn’t understand just how irresponsible his own father was being by staying out of his life and sending him no emotional or financial support until he had his own son.
In this passage, Wolff explores the inverse of one of the book’s major themes: personas and poses. Whereas most of the characters are trying to fashion new personas for themselves from the inside out, here, Jack is able to superimpose an identity or persona on his father, creating a false identity for the man from the outside in.
Due to Skipper’s influence, Jack develops a keen interest in cars. He begins hitchhiking at the end of his paper route for the chance to ride all around in strangers’ cars, and dreams that one day someone will be able to take him as far as Connecticut.
Jack takes up hitchhiking as a way of indulging in storytelling, escapism, and the adoption of false personas in real time.
When Skipper returns, the interior of the car is outfitted in white leather—but the exterior, which Skipper worked so hard on, looks as if it has been “sandblasted.” It is ruined. Skipper explains that he and his friend were caught in a sandstorm down in Mexico—as he tells the story, Jack can tell that Skipper is trying very hard not to cry. Despite the damage, Jack gets into the car and sits on the creamy leather seats. He plays pretend, making engine noises and working the gears; as he looks through the dusty windshield, he can almost convince himself he is moving.
Skipper’s efforts to update and remodel his car have failed; by the time he got to fixing up the inside, he’d damaged all his hard work on the outside. This metaphorically demonstrates the futility of a lot of the changes to their personalities or personas that characters in the book are trying to make.