Monday, February 16, 2009

The novel and the car

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:

A veritable Proteus of the highway, with bewildering ease [Quilty] switched from one vehicle to another. This technique implied the existence of garages specializing in “stage-automobile” operations, but I never could discover the remises he used. He seemed to patronize at first the Chevrolet genus, beginning with a Campus Cream convertible, then going on to a small Horizon Blue sedan, and thenceforth fading into Surf Gray and Driftwood Gray. Then he turned to other makes and passed through a pale dull rainbow of paint shades, and one day I found myself attempting to cope with the subtle distinction between our own Dream Blue Melmoth and the Crest Blue Oldsmobile he had rented; grays, however, remained his favorite cryptochromism, and, in agonizing nightmares, I tried in vain to sort out properly such ghosts as Chrysler’s Shell Gray, Chevrolet’s Thistle Gray, Dodge’s French Gray . . .Ellipses in the original. Although his credo was that “Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up,” Nabokov did not make up these colors. Shell gray was one of the colors in which Chrysler New Yorkers and Windsors were available in 1950. So too for Chevrolet Fleetlines and Stylines, which could be purchased in thistle gray in 1951.

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:On the sidewalk in front of a garage was a big car with little wire wheels, an old Marmon but she still had class. AIRPLANE ENGINE—SWEET RUNNER, the windshield said. We walked on by—there was even a tire on the spare. All of them held some air and the one up front had some tread showing, retread maybe but showing anyhow. We crossed the street for a side view and she really was some wagon, belly right on the ground and a high, smooth-lookin hood. The little wire wheels did something to me somehow. We went back and walked by again and she had seven seats—could be eight with three riding in the front. I looked inside and the dash was keen as hell. She had a rear-end transmission and somehow I liked that too.The story, a sort of Canterbury Tales along Route 66, is nothing out of the ordinary. But Morris’s novel pays attention to something that few other road novels do: the experience of driving. A man is more sensitive to the first signs of trouble with his car than with himself, Erich Fromm says somewhere in The Art of Loving. As if that is not the way a man should be. The Kid, who drives the Marmon on the cross-country trip, knows otherwise: “She felt good up through the floor board and through my shoe. She knocked a little on the rise—but that was cheap gas. I let her out a bit on the flat and at forty-five she was loose and idle, fifty-five drew her up where she was snug. When a car is snug she feels like a cat in your hands. And when you are snug with the car you purr right back.” Take that, mental disease!

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.


Robert Levy said...

I find your prejudice towards Pixar/Disney's Cars completely influenced by a six year old.

Surely Talladega Nights is the perfect car movie!

D. G. Myers said...


john said...

Thanks for the nice words about Night Driving. How old are your sons? Perhaps when they are a little older they will be able to enjoy it after a day with Batman and Spider Man.

As far as other books, my favorite scenes in On the Road all take place in the car, and the other scenes feel like holding places until we can get back into the car.

D. G. Myers said...


If you are John Coy, the author of Night Driving, then I am delighted to have written the nice words about your book. Perhaps it appeals more to me than to my sons (twins, six), because I have experienced an all-night drive with my father, pouring hot coffee for him, taking the wheel while he adjusted the thermos cup in his hand, checking the map, and they haven’t. Kids aren’t even allowed to ride in the front seat any more. The nanny state, not trusting fathers to protect their own sons, mandates that they be strapped down in child-safety seats in the back. My sons will probably never enjoy the experience described in Night Driving. It is the account of a lost world.

Autoseller Network said...

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drag racing videos said...

"I love racing thats why i m here to appreciate you!
You have done a great job keep it up." said...

I remember driving to the local bakery with my Grandfather to pick up bread and apple turnovers for breakfast. My sister sat to his right and I, to his left. And no, we weren't belted in. It is a wonderful memory. As for the nanny state not trusting fathers to protect their kids, I think you have it wrong, it's the drunk or the sleeper or the guy who dies at the wheel, or the idiot teenagers drag racing that the law is trying to protect us from. There were simply too many killed in accidents that were not their fault, that led to those requirements. And a lot of lives have been saved. We can't hang on to everything we'd like to in the face of a changing reality, any more than our ancestors clung to the caves, once they figured out how to build houses. That is the way of progress, whether or not we like it.

Patrick said...

I have been looking for a book I read when I was in middle school, it was about experimental steam powered race cars that drove on oval tracks like Indianapolis 500. I thought the book was titled Lotus, but I do know the main car in the book was named after a flower and the book was titled with it as well.

I was wondering if you could help in anyway

D. G. Myers said...

Patrick O’Connor’s Car called Camellia (1970)?