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Cars make the fictional man

Published November 23, 2012

In Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood, set in Miami, an Ivy League newspaper reporter named John Smith, described as “weak and bland,” drives a Volvo. His counterpart, a rugged, physically powerful, working class policeman named Nestor Camacho drives a beat-up Camaro muscle car.

This example of automotive typecasting is slightly out of date — today’s Volvo is not as nerdy as the square box Volvos of the 1970s — but “you are what you drive” has been a theme of North American literature since the invention of the automobile. Male writers, in particular, are typically sensitive to the shades of meaning cars bestow upon their owners. Men seem genetically attuned to the dream aspect of cars, to their ride’s function as, in Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, a mechanical bride. (I can think of few, if any, car references in Margaret Atwood.)

Sinclair Lewis may have been the first to link a man’s soul with his car. In his 1922 novel, Babbitt, set in the era when cars had just become an essential item, Sinclair Lewis describes his hero’s love affair with his car. “To George F. Babbitt,” Lewis writes, “his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship, but the car his perilous excursion ashore.”

Lewis unfortunately does not tell us what car the prosperous George Babbitt drove. It must have been a glamour wagon, a Packard, perhaps.

Thirty years later, in the opening scene of Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel, Kiss Me, Deadly, we have hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer behind the wheel. He is about to be stopped by some thugs who will push his car over a cliff. Spillane does not tell us what kind of car his hero drives, either, but we have some clues. “Poor old baby,” laments Hammer, whose feelings for his wrecked car are considerably more tender than his feelings for most humans. “The last of the original hot rods.”

That is all we know of the car, except for the revelation that Hammer was going 70 m.p.h. on a mountain road before his encounter with the thugs. This is in keeping with one critic’s characterization of Mike Hammer as a man whose “trademarks are brutish violence, the-end-justifies-the-means philosophy, and speed.” Another critic characterizes the 1955 movie version of the novel — one of the greatest of Hollywood’s film noirs — as a movie whose core is “speed and violence.” In this version, Hammer is given a white, two-seater Jaguar XK120 sports car convertible to roar around with at the beginning of the film. The Jag is not as gritty as a hot rod, but it fits.

Some cars function in literature not merely as indicators of the owner’s status and outlook but as agents of his downfall. This is true of the “black Mercedes two-seat sports roadster” driven by Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street investment banker who is the protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and — at the other end of the socio-economic scale — the “Hyundai hatchback family wagon” driven by Conrad Hensley, the young working class protagonist of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full.

McCoy’s Mercedes is an emblem not only of wealth but of power and technology. “Come on, you Krauts, you Panzer heads, you steely-brained machinists,” McCoy prays as he anxiously drives his car in alien territory, a scary section of the Bronx. Under these circumstances, however, the car is a liability — its visible manifestation of wealth invites the stares of suspicious looking youths, and results in a hit-and-run incident.

Hensley’s “rattling old Hyundai,” by contrast, proclaims the modest means and utilitarian outlook of its owner. He is an honest, determined family man, as opposed to a fellow worker who owns a sports car with 20-inch speakers, purchased with borrowed money — the embodiment of a “crash and burn” philosophy. Hensley’s car is completely inoffensive, which makes it all the sadder what happens — the Hyundai Excel is responsible for a series of ever more disastrous events when it is towed from a no-parking spot. Hensley’s car, frequently described as “small” or “little,” is no match for the tow truck driver, who is termed a “giant.”

Cars figure prominently in literary depictions of salesmen, including Willy Loman, the hero of Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. His 1928 red Chevrolet lives in his memory like a beacon, although two decades have passed since he owned it. The “red Chevy” contrasts in his mind with the unreliability and the unromantic nature of his present car, a “goddam Studebaker.”

In Philip Roth’s 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the make of the car is not as important as its newness. The protagonist of the novel, Alexander Portnoy, recalls at the end of the Second World War his father, a life insurance salesman, taking him to the car lot to exchange his 1939 Dodge — a high quality, medium priced car of the era — for a brand new Kaiser-Frazer, the snazziest car on the road at the time. “What a perfect way for an American dad to impress his American son!” Portnoy recalls. The sentiment would be echoed by Willy Loman — it is his sons, Biff and Happy, who lovingly simonize the red Chevy.

Here in Canada the excitement is muted. The hero of Richard B. Wright’s 1970 novel The Weekend Man is Wes Wakeham, a publishing rep for a small, branch-plant educational publisher in Toronto. Unlike Willy Loman or Portnoy Senior, Wakeham feels under no desperate pressure to sell his wares — his sales pitch is so mild as to be almost non-existent — or coincidentally to impress his sons. For one thing, Wakeham has no sons. He and his estranged wife are childless. For another Wakeham is under no financial pressure, the reasonably well-paid job with the publisher having fallen more or less into his lap.

This accounts for Wakeham’s wishy-washy relationship with cars. The company has lent him a car, he informs the reader, “a stiff little Dodge Dart, maroon in colour. Now I have had the greatest enjoyment from this machine. I had never driven a car before, much less had one in my own parking slot, and though my Dart is only rented, it’s mine now in spirit. I cherish its clean lines and six-cylinder engine and I give it the best treatment that money can buy. . . Still I confess that the novelty of the Dart is beginning to wear thin and sometimes when I think too much about it I become quite gloomy.”

Why the gloom? Is it because of the colour, maroon being a favourite hue of hearses? Is it because the modest, “stiff little” car reminds him of his own lack of ambition in comparison to individuals like the energetic president of the firm? “I like to watch him from my window in the mornings as he steps from his Buick Wildcat and walks across the parking lot,” Wakeham observes of this man. “He has the springy step of a welterweight.”

Such men do not, in 1970, drive a six-cylinder Dodge Dart. They drive a muscle car with a hairy V8 capable of smoking the tires. But there is no sense that Wakeham is ambitious for a more glamorous car or job. At one point he refers to his car as his “snug little Dart,” which is not the language of a car enthusiast, but which fits the world he lives in, of high school teachers and publishing house middle management. A Grade 10 teacher with whom he has a fling drives another compact car, which he calls “a stout little Valiant.” Such people do not drive cars for pleasure but purely for use. There are no Mike Hammers in this crowd.

wheels@thestar.ca

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