Telling the story through auto's biography

Jun. 27, 2014 @ 09:13 AM

When it comes to cars, I look for reliability.  I don’t care about a sleek shape, a shiny paint job, a flashy color.  When I was young, my stepfather handed me down his Riviera which he called a “classic.” I didn’t know, or care what year it was. Even in my ignorance I immediately understood the power under the hood, a characteristic that became scary when the accelerator stuck. 
For years my husband drove a shiny, red growly Trans Am. I could barely see over the steering wheel, the noise and horse power made me uncomfortable and I pleaded with him to get rid of it. He wouldn’t, not even the day he got trapped in it when the battery died, and the broken door handle didn’t allow exit. He’d been opening the door by reaching outside the window to the outside door handle, but the windows were up. I was just a room away, but he couldn’t sound the horn to alert me. Thank goodness for its fancy T-top! He popped it and climbed out the top. I understood his resistance to selling it better when I disparaged his choice to our mechanic who told me “he’ll never have a car like this again!” Indeed, when a cracked head brought on its temporary demise, he got what he calls “his old man car.”
To say I care little about cars is an understatement, but I had a road trip coming up and kind of liked the idea of listening to Earl Swift’s “Auto biography: a classic car, an outlaw motorhead, & 57 years of the American dream” (book from HarperCollins; Blackstone Audio, read by Greg Itzin, about 12 hours). Swift, a former newspaper reporter in Norfolk, Virginia, made me care about the focus of his auto biography, a ’57 Chevy. 
I flew out of the audio starting gate like Dale Earnhardt at Swift’s description of the main player in the story, Tommy Arney. He is “6[-foot-1], 240, biceps big as most men’s thighs, displayed to maximum effect in the black wife beater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.” Tommy’s hair has grown too thin to “facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades.” Swift negotiates a phrase like a car with a tight turning radius. I revved my literary motor as Swift’s writing makes the eccentric Arney zoom off the page. With a succinct list, Swift pictures Tommy’s “Big calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt force trauma of which dozens resulted in his arrest.” In terms of deeds, Arney has been known to eat 72 chicken wings, had an ugly scar re-open two hours after hospital release when he got into a fight at a strip-club (that he owned) , loves to cuss, and while brilliant at everything car, he didn’t make it past fifth grade.
Tommy owns Moyok Muscle, in Moyok, North Carolina, and offends local officials because the first thing you see driving southward into the state is his lot of 400 old cars.  One of these, a ’57 Chevy, is the car of choice for Swift’s nonfiction, even though its black paint has been clouded by time and lack of upkeep, and is somewhat consumed by rot and decay. Still a ’57 Chevy is one of the most collectable, recognizable cars and as such is a prime “project car” ripe for restoration. Swift uses a romantic tone imagining  what this car was and could be again, “chrome laden front end, bumper and grill united in a gleaming thick-lipped pout, bumper guards jutting like tusks from the corners of its wide mouth … 16’8” of Eisenhower-era flash”
One of the most noteworthy things about this particular Chevy is its “invisible asset,” a well-documented past, citing its passage through 12 owners from the “middle-class boiler maker who bought it fresh from the factory” to the “Christian garbage man enamored of anything old.” This car tells a story — in fact many stories: the history of cars in general and Chevys in specific, the car’s owners, Arney’s past and the past of his posse, the culture and the stages of car ownership “not unlike those of a doomed marriage,” from showroom courtship, lust, companionable reliance, and then the last phases where doubt and disgust enter the relationship.  All these thrum together like interrelated mechanisms of an engine. Swift rightly sees that Chevy as a car fossil, a “time capsule of Americanism itself.”
Narrator Greg Itzin reads with the authority and emotion that give surety he cares about the material. He meanders accurately through Swift’s complex, rich phrases, through long surprising sentences and strings of descriptions. He speeds up with tension and brakes at poignant points.
Here’s my big disappointment, I won’t return before Earl Swift comes to speak in the Triangle. He was at Flyleaf June 26 and will be at Quail Ridge on Friday, June 27, at 7:30. With the humor and elegant phrases of terms and all the story he has to tell, put on your seat belts, he’ll be taking you on a wild ride.