Dirt Bikes, Drones, & Other Ways to Fly Is Conrad Wesselhoeft's most personal novel yet
By Emile Monte
A family haunted by the sudden and tragic loss of the mother. A father struggling professionally. Teenagers at crossroads. Even a grinning, standard poodle. “Sounds familiar,” jokes Conrad Wesselhoeft, West Seattle author of Dirt Bikes, Drones, & Other Ways to Fly, due to release in April. It’s been eight years since the tragic loss of his wife and the mother of his three children and Wesselhoeft writes what he knows: grief, friendship, and healing.
“Themes find their writers,” said Wesselhoeft. Dirt Bikes comes after his acclaimed Young Adult (YA) debut Adios, Nirvana which also centers around the loss of a loved one. Adios is the voice of Jonathan, a seventeen-year-old West-Seattleite struggling to reclaim life after the death of his twin brother. Dirt Bikes is the voice of seventeen-year old Arlo Santiago.
What’s the difference between Jonathan and Arlo? Betraying his love for the Beatles, Wesselhoeft explains that Jonathan is a poet-philosopher like John Lennon—loud, caustic, and vulnerable. Arlo is more like George Harrison—quiet, spiritual, and escapist. Both are young men at a developmental stage of their life, haunted by grief, and confronted with a crossroad.
Here Dirt Bikes claims its autonomy. Arlo is confident, driven, a winner—a dirt biker and video gamer turned drone pilot. The life and death he is pressured to choose is not his own. To find his own way, Arlo bites the hands that feed him. The authority he feels compelled to rebel against expands beyond the average teenager’s parents and teachers to the U.S. government. No, Wesselhoeft hasn’t read Ender’s Game. (He avoids reading fiction lest it influence his narrative voice.) Unlike Ender, Arlo is aware of the extent that he is being used, and has to reconcile with the choice he must knowingly make before it’s too late.
Wesselhoeft, in his sixties, feels immense compassion for youth transitioning into adult life. He believes in their shaky confidence, in their admirable and ridiculous arrogance. He believes youth run the world. His life is full of them. Wesselhoeft was inspired by the healing power of friendship he witnessed through his teenage children and their friends as they raided the fridge and jammed on guitars in the sunlit living room. Wesselhoeft was inspired by YA author Scott O’Dell, who told him the only reason he wrote was because he had something to say and viewed youth as the only truly receptive audience.
Wesselhoeft has something to say: “We need stories to learn how to live and to understand who we are.” And when plunged into the vortex of uncertainty and grief, he quotes Walt Whitman: “Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”
Wesselhoeft will be speaking for the Words, Writers, & West Seattle series at the Westwood Barnes & Noble on Friday, March 7th.