In his Brenner and God, recently issued in translation by Melville House, Wolf Haas presents us with one of the most thoroughly likeable characters I’ve come across in a very long while. Simon Brenner is an ex-detective, a man in middle age who has decided after trying out more than 50 professions that he was born to be a chauffeur. Although actually, “chauffeur” doesn’t seem exactly the right word for his current employment: he’s almost, when you come right down to it, a sort of Autobahn-based nanny. His job involves ferrying a two-year-old, Helena, over the 300 miles that separate her parents’ respective businesses.
Helena’s father is a wildly successful construction magnate — a Lion of Construction, in the parlance of the book — with headquarters in Munich. Her mother is a physician with a small clinic in downtown Vienna. Both have any number of enemies, the father because Construction Lions always have enemies and the mother because she performs abortions. A permanent crowd of protestors menaces patients by the clinic’s front door. They feel safer having their small daughter in the care of a former detective.
Brenner is devoted to his charge. He feels that he can tell Helena anything, and keeps the car impeccable for her benefit. He runs the windshield wipers ever so often in perfectly clear weather, because the windshield wipers delight her so. As for Helena, her first word: “Not ‘Mama,’ not ‘Papa’ — ‘Driver.’” Theirs is a perfectly happy friendship.
Former Detective Brenner is on a calmer keel than he used to be. He used to have some inclination toward flying off the handle, the book’s unnamed narrator tells us, but that’s all changed since he took a less stressful job and started on the anti-depressants. He takes his pills, maintains his car, and carefully ferries his charge 300 miles each way up and down the Autobahn. He likes his life. His employers are delighted. Until the day when he stops at a gas station — he always gases up the car the night before but this one time he forgot — and decides to dash in quickly to get Helena a chocolate bar, even though chocolate bars are specifically forbidden by her parents on the grounds that they’re bad for her teeth, because she does after all love chocolate and those are after all only her baby teeth.
But while he’s on the gas station, the girl disappears from the car. He’s dismissed from his job and loses his chauffeur’s apartment above the garage. And just like that, ex-detective Brenner is a detective again.
There are, at least, no shortage of leads. Given the parents’ respective professions, the main problem lies not in finding someone with a motive, but in narrowing down the list of plausible suspects. There’s a questionable congressman whose phone number is unaccountably programmed into Helena’s mother’s cell phone, a somewhat shady bank director who works with Helena’s father, and Knoll, a fanatical abortion-clinic protestor who once obliquely threatened the child.
There’s something Brenner should know, Knoll tells him: Helena’s mother once performed an abortion on a 12-year-old girl. He has a blurry picture of the girl entering the clinic, and there’s 10,000 euros in it if Brenner can find her. Who was the 12-year-old, and is she connected in some way with Helena’s disappearance?
The story is told by a narrator who is never named, but who manages nonetheless to be curiously intrusive. Mostly it’s charming, a narrator who continually hectors us to pay attention (literally, as in “Pay attention: I’m only going to say so much”) and who conversationally drops in his opinions every so often (“By this point…Brenner himself wasn’t placing any large bets on his life. And me neither, to be honest.”) It has to be said, though, that you can only be extorted to pay attention by your narrator so many times before the novelty starts to wear off, and by the three-quarter mark the device has gotten a little cute.
And yet, stylistic flaws notwithstanding, the book is a meticulously plotted, dark, and often very funny ride.