Matt Kenseth won the rain-shortened Daytona 500, the opening race of the 2009 NASCAR season, yesterday. In an unexpected and wonderful post earlier in the day, Edward Byrne praised stock car racing: “Nowhere else in sport does the risk of one’s life become so apparent, and at Daytona the danger exists for the full 500 miles as the racers never escape from one another, tense and focused for hours, always only one mental slip or one mechanical defect away from tragic disaster, from death.” Despite novels and poems on many different sports, “rarely have serious authors examined stock car racing,” Byrne says.
Rarely? I do not know of a single novel on the theme. There have been movies aplenty, including Pixar Studios’ Cars, the perfection of the genre. (The sequel is scheduled for summer 2012.) As a symbol of American freedom, the car plays an important supporting role in road novels like Charles Portis’s Dog of the South (1979). The car as a visual treat (“whose design matches the aesthetics one might find in modern works of art,” as Byrne describes the stock cars in yesterday’s Daytona race), the appeal of cars as captured by Old Car and Truck Pictures, a site that I haunt as if it were a showroom, is found only in Nabokov:
There was never an American car named the Melmoth, although the name sounds plausible. (It was an allusion to Melmoth the Wanderer, a four-volume Gothic novel from early in the nineteenth century.) There was an American car named the Marmon, however, and it appears in Wright Morris’s first novel My Uncle Dudley (1942), a Depression-era picaresque. The unnamed “Kid,” who narrates the story, and his uncle Dudley find themselves stranded in Los Angeles. “You had enough milk and honey?” the uncle asks. They hit upon a scheme. They round up six passengers who are willing to share expenses to Chicago. With the money they buy an old Marmon:
When the car breaks down or gets a flat—a locus classicus in road novels, even in Lolita—the men climb out of the Marmon and swap stories and philosophies. And in one remarkable scene (best thing in the novel), they compare hands. Then, the car fixed, the flat patched, they climb back in, and the Kid resumes the drive. There are few American novels devoted to this, a central rite of passage for the American male. John Coy has a low-key children’s book called Night Driving (1996), with evocative illustrations by Peter McCarthy, about a son’s car trip with his father. I enjoy reading it to my own sons far more than they enjoy hearing it. (Their tastes run these days to Batman and Spider-man.) In no other American book that I can think of is the drama contained wholly in a car. Allan Seager wrote a lovely fictional memoir entitled A Frieze of Girls (1964), tracing his growth through a series of girlfriends, but there is no equivalent American novel—nothing that could be retitled A Frieze of Cars. Except for Morris and one or two others, most American writers neglect the meditative, out-of-body experience in which you dutifully follow the road’s stitching for hundreds of miles, even though you are not seeking any source.