Score: 93+/100 (9.3+ out of 10)
Wait, this is a work of fiction?! No. There's not way. There is absolutely no way that this is fiction. Everything in this book sounds so real, so genuine, so sincere. It's almost as if you—the reader—are there with the protagonist, cheering for them, suffering with them, crying with them, angry with them, gritting your teeth with them.
This book, at the very least, has to have its roots in the actual experiences of the author or someone close to them. Every now and then we've encountered a book like this that sounds too real to be fiction. Some examples include The Prodigal Father by Forrest Hutter and Just Arrived by Bona Udeze. These are some of the best books we've ever read, and The Little Toy Car is in great company.
All three of these authors were somehow able to take a realistic story about a person just trying to live their best life against insurmountable odds, and elevate these stories with solid writing and characters.
This book in particular excels in one key way: PAYOFF.
You get some of the best payoffs of any book here. The people who deserve to get their @#$es kicked tend to get their #$%es kicked. And we just love it! We were on our feet, smiling, jumping, and cheering whenever the main character took a stand for himself.
Speaking of the main character, this book follows Gene Oliver Dixon from his very early years into adulthood. This book is essentially a bildungsroman about the wild, tragic, yet inspiring life of Gene, an aspiring musician who grew up in an abusive, hyperreligious household.
Gene's battles to keep his life from being defined by two key events:
1. When he stole a little toy car from a neighbor's house (“my first mistake as a child”), thus giving the book its name, 2. Growing up following the rules of his abusive step-dad, Jacob.
What incredible is that these two events keep coming up throughout the book, but they come up with added layers and context. For example, a cult-like Bible studies teacher named Colton is able to reopen the wound of that early act of theft, trying to guilt Gene that it was that sin that led to the death of Jesus. This actually affects Gene deeply, even when he's just pretending to be church-going to get lodging.
This also highlights one of the book's reoccurring themes: religious hypocrisy and psychological manipulation. Gene is set up to be manipulated by cult-like people of all kinds, everyone from Jacob to Joe, and from Colton to Melissa. All of these people try to control Gene in different ways, largely playing on his moral compass and his desperation.
And, while this book is highly critical of organized religion, it actually attempts to show both sides: the evils of both religion and secularism—control and chaos. Incredibly, despite the many evil manipulators in this book, one of Gene's worse enemies is himself.
Even when freeing himself of Jacob—a glorious and grand moment that could've concluded the whole book—Gene doesn't ride off into the sunset. Even when rejecting religion, it doesn't fix all of his problems. In fact, it leads to some new ones. He develops drug addictions, associates with people like Melissa, and even fantasizes about getting into a shootout with the FBI. Regarding the latter, he even views this shootout scenario as a way of committing suicide while killing as many people as possible. So, Gene, despite being a very sympathetic character, is actually rather monstrous in his own right. And Gene isn't above using and manipulating people to meet his own ends like when he lies to John and Colton about his actual intentions and his loyalty in order to get free housing.
Another very interesting thing about this book is how it follows Gene practically all of the country and the world, all the way from LA to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Hawaii, and even to Australia. The author is actually from Argentina of all places, so it's incredible how much they know about all of these locations and their cultures.
Jacob stands out as one of the most despicable villains we've ever read about. He stands out for his two-faced, hypocritical nature, the way he weasels his way into Gene's life, and just how terrible a person he is.
You also get some fascinating flashbacks of Gene's mother and father, an ex-con, as well as a rather incredible encounter with the FBI.
Check it out on Amazon!