The world of Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts is rich in personalities and tribal history but poor in worldly goods. Carolyn Chute returns to the small town of The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985), a first novel which won enthusiastic reviews for its no-nonsense depiction of rural poverty. Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts paints another populous clan perched on the edge of society. Egypt is not in the “Down East” part of Maine, with its coastal fishing villages. Chute’s Maine is inland, near Portland. The Letourneaus belong to the large Franco-American population of southwestern Maine. Several generations removed from Quebec, their ties to the old language and ways are tenuous. The Letourneaus, like Chute’s Bean family, have their roots in an area slated for a suburban boom. The arrival of new people—yuppies and out-of-staters—was the final factor in the breakdown of one central character in The Beans of Egypt, Maine. The Letourneaus face the same problem.
Big Lucien Letourneau is a power in Egypt, a family patriarch and owner of a junkyard which employs a significant number of the townspeople. He expands his family circle with hard luck cases housed in Miracle City, a backyard trailer camp. Though Big Lucien is the reigning divinity in this world, the novel shows him indirectly, around the corner or out of town, visible only by reflection. Other people interpret his wishes or follow his orders. His voice, with its French accent, can be heard, but Big Lucien himself remains invisible, enigmatic to the reader. Everyone looks for or at Big Lucien; the reader forms an impression of him through the vision of others.
At times it seems that everyone in Egypt belongs to Big Lucien. They are his family, his workers, his tenants. A heart of gold and a rumored fortune earn for him the name “Big Mister Pluto.” Yet times are hard. Before Chute drops her readers on the streets of Portland, it is not Pluto’s wealth that Big Lucien has come to personify but his role as the ancient king of Hell.
Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts opens within feeling distance of hellfire. Crowe Bovey, one of Big Lucien’s mechanics, returns from three days with a girlfriend to find his family dead in a fire. With his family and home goes Crowe’s hold on independent life. His is the first and most dramatic slide into the circle of Big Lucien’s charity the reader witnesses, but Miracle City is already peopled with sad cases. The town zoning officer is their attendant demon, eternally prowling Letourneau land in search of trailers or “camps” which have not been “grandfathered” into semilegitimacy. In a closing scene, the officer is burned in effigy as revenge. He represents the interests of a town too concerned with the interests of affluent newcomers to worry about the natives. The code officer and his employers are men who wear tan double-knit polyester suits, in sharp contrast with the horny-handed men in Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts work shirts.
The Letourneau home is a rambling pile just back of the junk yard. Here live Big Lucien’s old mother, Mémère (Gramma) Poulin, his sisters, the “tantes” (aunts), headed by the redoubtable worker Flavie, and a floating collection of informal wives and their children. Except for the eternal former wife Maxine, Big Lucien’s wives are temporary. Each has her particular personality and temporal slot, but they disappear, one by one, without a trace or an explanation. The Letourneaus favor evening chats out on the porch and warm cake served by the tantes. The young wives brood over their babies while Flavie runs the house.
Big Lucien’s dark eyes are one secret of his magic. He passes them down to all of his children, along with a lower lip that thickens in times of doubt. To be seen by Big Lucien, to live in his eyes, is a precious charm that somehow draws women to him. Big, mean Maxine will do anything to feel herself in his eyes. Strange women drive up from Boston to draw his wonderful eyes. No one but the zoning officer can resist him. Even his mechanics continue to work long after they receive their last paychecks, past the point when they lose their homes and wind up in the rundown trailers and temporary shacks of Miracle City.
Potato companies or “the mill” employ the women of Egypt and wring them dry in exchange for a regular paycheck. Letourneau’s junkyard maims and defeats men without even paying them. All the male workers are identified by their shirts, at first marked with each man’s first name, as well as the name of the junkyard. By the novel’s end, shirts are worn interchangeably, and new men wear shirts abandoned by others. One worker loses his front teeth in an accident at the yard, but such injuries are commonplace and go unwept in the macho atmosphere. Another worker kills himself out in the yard, but work goes on just the same.
Under the shadow of Big Lucien’s patriarchy are other family groups. Armand Letourneau and...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)