Alex’s parents have just completed an unpleasant divorce, due in no small part to Alex’s father’s affair with Alex’s third grade teacher. One night, when his mother’s at work, Alex drinks about a fifth of vodka to work up the courage to drive over and tell his father what he thinks of him. Needless to say, Alex doesn’t make it that far, instead plowing onto a neighbor’s yard just far enough to smash her lawn gnome before the police catch up with him. A short trip to the police station and slightly longer stay in the emergency room later, he finds himself in court being sentenced to 100 hours of community service, the proceeds from which will be used to pay for a replacement lawn gnome. Having puked copiously over the cops’ feet doesn’t help matters.
He is assigned to spend the time with Solomon Lewis, a particularly cantankerous resident of a local nursing home. In the beginning, he isn’t too keen to spend time with this irritable old coot who insults him very partially in both English and Yiddish, and begs both his mother and the judge who assigned him there to release him…but both are adamant. He must finish the community service with THAT old man. (Yes, there’s a reason why he’s assigned this particular person.) The old man continues to berate him and play pranks on him, until finally about midway through the service period, Alex comes to the nursing home from his guitar practice, but Solomon is out of his room having some tests done. To pass the time, Alex practices his guitar, only to find Solomon sitting a couple of feet away, listening attentively. After several visits (and several guitar playing sessions later), Alex decides to put on a concert, with the help of a couple of kids in his school who’ve been working paid gigs, for the nursing home residents…only to be flabbergasted to find Solomon himself up on the stage with Alex’s fellow students, playing Alex’s guitar like a professional. Which, shortly thereafter, Alex discovers is exactly what Solomon is. Or rather, was. Solomon had been a professional guitar player some decades previously–eventually, we find out that Solomon gave it up after he insisted on his finishing an out-of-town gig which happened to coincide with his wife going into labor. She starts for the hospital to have their child….only to be killed when her car is plowed down by a drunk driver. It is at that point he gave his music career up to become a house painter, the better to raise the now motherless infant daughter.
Another concert, a prom, and a misplaced date later, Alex comes to the end of his required community services, but realizes that he cannot just walk away from what is now a friendship just as Solomon’s emphysema is worsening to the point that it’s clear his life is nearly over. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to let on that yes, Sol does die–there’s another plot twist before that that makes the book a bit hokey but worthwhile in a Tuesdays with Morrie sort of way. (And no, the twist isn’t Alex’s parents’ relationship.)
This hasn’t quite the depth of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, though it’s the same kind of emotionally satisfying read, and has a similar idea similarly presented. The ending of Notes from the Midnight Driver is, however, simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.