Yes, the road.

Yes, the road.
Eagle Nest, New Mexico. “People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.


My photo
Brooklin, Maine, United States
We own a 1975 GMC Sierra Grande 15 in Maine and a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 in West Texas. Also a pair of 1997 Volvo 850 wagons. Average age in the fleet is 28 years--we're recycling. I've published 3 novels: THE LAW OF DREAMS (2006), THE O'BRIENS (2012), and CARRY ME (2016). Also 2 short story collections: NIGHT DRIVING(1987) and TRAVELLING LIGHT (2013). More of my literary life is at I was a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. I'm an adjunct professor at Colorado College and in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. In 2015-16 I was a Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Autoliterate office is in Car Talk Plaza in Harvard Square, 2 floors above Dewey Cheatem & Howe. SUBSCRIBE TO THE AUTOLITERATE DAILY EMAIL by hitting the button to the right.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pontiac Safari

Autoliterate likes station wagons nearly as much as trucks, and plans a posting on a hardy pair of Volvo 850 wagons, the daily drivers here. There's something reassuring about a vehicle you can sleep in.
         Meanwhile, a station wagon piece from one of our Northern California correspondents. As a car-crazed young man, Michael Taylor was authorized to choose the family wheels. It had to be a station wagon, but that was about the only constraint.  Michael went at it with all the joie de vivre of the defense department ordering a new weapons system.

                                                          PONTIAC SAFARI
For a budding car freak, just out of his teens, the offer was irresistible. It was 1962, and my dad said he needed a new station wagon – uh huh, fine, there are a lot of them out there – but the wrinkle was that he was leaving it completely up to me as to which car to buy. He told me to figure out everything about the car. He didn’t care about the color (please, no orange, he did say), or what engine was in it (gas was 31 cents a gallon back then) or, for that matter, anything else about the car. Just make it a wagon. There was only one caveat: for complicated business reasons, it had to be a General Motors car and it had to be picked up, by me, at a GM facility in Detroit. Other than that, have at it, kid. So…. what to do?

We were living in New York then, so I slunk down to the Manhattan Pontiac dealer that, if memory serves, was on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway. Into the showroom, all eager, bright-eyed, quick glance at the range of 1962 Pontiacs – how about that Bonneville convertible? I wonder if that qualifies as a wagon – then over to the first salesman. “Hi,” said I, in that tone of the know-it-all whelp who needs taking down a peg or two, “I’d like to see the RPO book.” Somewhere I had read about the Regular Production Option catalogue for GM cars that let you build a car exactly the way you wanted it. Lucky for me that the salesman was a Car Guy. He hauled out a massive binder, put it on the desk and gazed at me.

“You know, we have plenty of cars here,” he said, pointing out that it takes weeks to get a car built from scratch. “You can drive out of this place today. What are you looking for?”

“A wagon,” said I, “but not an ordinary wagon. What I really want to do is build something of a Q-ship. Mild on the outside, wild on the inside.” We talked that way in those days, especially at the age of 20 and horny as hell. 

                                                           Not the wagon, but close.
He took one last look at me – I really could sell this kid one of the wagons we’ve got here – and then he realized that I was drooling, and one of those plain-vanilla wagons just wouldn’t do. So he opened the book and started flipping through the sections, arriving at the engine part.

“Okay, what we have here is the basic 389-cubic-inch motor” – he pointed to a line in the book – “but up here we have two big-deal motors, still 389s.” These were Pontiac’s high-performance motors. One was a 333-horsepower engine, with one four-barrel carb; the other was 348 horses, with three two-barrels. I’d heard of multiple carburetor engines occasionally going out of sync, and said, “how about the 333-horse one?”

The 389 cid engine in a NASCAR 1961 Pontiac Catalina 
“Fine,” he said. “You know that comes with the bigger, dual exhaust system. This thing will move. What you’re looking at is a drag car that hauls groceries.” I think at that point I drooled on his desk.


“Three-speed on the column.”


“Morrokide interior?”


“Light under the hood?”

Light under the hood? Check.

We ordered it up in blue, with blue interior. I gave him the particulars of how the car was going to be paid for – my father was owed some money by someone who had figured out a way to pay him with a car, rather than cash, which was okay with him. The salesman said, “I’ll call you when it’s almost done. Should take about two months.”

So two months later, he called and said, “car’s going to be ready Tuesday.” On Tuesday, I flew out to Detroit and went to a Pontiac dealer late in the afternoon. Guy took me around back. There it was. Wow. Yes, it was painted blue. Yes, the interior was blue. He started it up. It really did sound like a drag car – no quiet, suburban exhaust here. Burble, burble. He revved it. Whomp, whomp. He gave me the keys, made me sign a bunch of papers – I had no idea what I was signing, just let me into this beast – and told me to take a left out of the parking lot, then a right and another right and that’s the way to New York.

Shifting from first to second, then flooring it – the whole front of the car leaps up, the car squiggles slightly in the rear, then takes off. Like a rocket. Whoah. Easy there.

I drove through the night – too excited to sleep – and every time I stopped for gas, I’d open the hood, check to watch the engine churning throatily away. I got it back to New York in one piece – I’m not sure I was in one piece – and we had the car for another 10 years. Finally, my father decided it was time to get another wagon. This time, it was pretty tame – a 1970 Mercury, automatic, docile engine, quiet exhaust, no light under the hood.

White bread.
                                                                                       ©Michael Taylor  2011.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Saskatchewan, Larry Levis, Walt Whitman, and book plug.

If you have been following Autoliterate, you may have noticed a strong Saskatchewan trope bending our aesthetic. We are fortunate to have a group of Saskatchewan correspondents, all of them with clear eyes, decent cameras, strong senses of composition, passionate aesthetic sensibilities, and a curious admiration for old metal, especially in the shape of trucks. Today we feature  machines from opposite ends of the province--north and south--and from different centuries. 
     But our Saskatchewan thing goes deeper than that.  Politically the province has always been a dynamic place: The Dirty Thirties hit there as hard as anywhere, and Saskatchewan became part of the great North American Dustbowl. Partly in response, Saskathewan elected North America's first social-democrat government, back in 1944. 
                       "Elevators, Woodrow, Sask."   Alex Emond ©2011 

     Autoliterate loves to drive, and prefers empty western roads, big skies, powerful light, and towns you've never heard of. We've mentioned it before, but Hwy 13 across south Saskatchewan, "The Redcoat Trail" is one of our favorite motor trips in the world. Don't do it unless you like huge skies and rolling grassland. And bring along Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow; also, novelist Sharon Butala's nonfiction picture book, Old Man on His Back, done with photographer Courtney Milne. Butala writes about The Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB)  a 13,OOO-acre grasslands preserve established by the Nature Conservancy in cooperation with a number of partners, among them the land donors, Peter and Sharon Butala.  Make sure you stop at Woodrow, Sask., artist Graeme Patterson's home town, and the inspiration for his Woodrow installation. 
              When we were last there, a few years back, Jack's Cafe in Eastend, Sask was  a wonderful place for breakfast: several notches above average road food. Motoring across this sort of wide-open country, we usually like to pull over at some point, get out, and run a few miles. And we usually pack a picnic lunch to eat by the side of the (empty) road. Love the noise of the wind out there. Which reminds us of a line ("the thin whine of Montana fence wire") in a poem, "Whitman", by Larry Levis, one of the late great American poets (died in 1996, aged 49) and included in his astonishing collection Winter Stars.

   “I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” 
-Democratic Vistas

“Look for me under your bootsoles.”

On Long Island, they moved my clapboard house
Across a turnpike, & then felt so guilty they
Named a shopping center after me!

Now that I’m required reading in your high schools,
Teenagers call me a fool.
Now what I sang stops breathing.

And yet
It was only when everyone stopped believing in me
That I began to live again—
First in the thin whine of Montana fence wire,
Then in the transparent, cast-off garments hung
In the windows of the poorest families,
Then in the glad music of Charlie Parker.
At time now,
I even come back t watch you
From the eyes of a taciturn boy at Malibu.
Across the counter at the beach concession stand,
I see you hot dogs, Pepsis, cigarettes-
My blond hair long, greasy, & swept back
In a vain old ducktail, deliciously
Out of style. And no one notices.
Once I even came back as me,
An aging homosexual who the Tilt-a-Whirl
At county fairs, the chilled paint on each gondola
Changing color as it picked up speed,
And a Mardi Gras tattoo on my left shoulder.
A few of you must have seen my photographs,
For when I looked back,
I thought you caught the meaning of my stare:

Still water,

A Kosmos. One of the roughs.

And Charlie Parker’s grave outside Kansas City
Covered with weeds.

Leave me alone.
A father who’s outlived his only child.

To find me now will cost you everything.

               If Autoliterate helps a few more readers discover the work of this American poet--well, we're delighted.
              And now, 2 truck photos. First from our man in South Saskatchewan, Alex Emond of Ponteix, who found this pair of Jimmies near Pennant, Sask.
                                                      photo Alex Emond ©2011

    And from the other end of the province--where the trees and lakes are--Ragnar Robinson of La Ronge just bought this machine--looks like a late 90's GMC?-- for his firewood business. First truck, I believe? Firewood is $220/cord in downeast Maine this year: maple mixed with some birch. I expect a bit cheaper in north Saskatchewan. 
                                                   photo Hilary Johnstone ©2011
Finally, Autoliterate must mention that Peter Behrens' new novel, The O'Briens, is just out in Canada, from House of Anansi Press,  and available at bookstores across the country, or online at or Chapters/Indigo. (Some of our favorite indie Canadian stores: Greenwoods (Edmonton);  McNally Robinson (Winnipeg, Saskatoon); Bolen Books (Victoria);  and Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON.) The US edition (from Pantheon Books) won't be out until March 2012. PB will be book-touring around Canada this summer and fall (see events schedule) and in the US in the spring, and looks forward to meeting Autoliterals along the way.  


Thursday, June 16, 2011

My brilliant careerism.

           My sailing story from the June issue of Maine Magazine, referred to in a previous Autoliterate post, is now online.

           This next note has, admittedly, little to do with trucks, cars, highways, or even boats--but (I hope) something to do with aesthetics, which is another Autoliterate preoccupation. My new novel The O'Briens has just appeared in Canada, where it is published by House of Anansi Press. It is available at Canadian retailers, and online at places like and chapters/indigo.  The US edition (Pantheon Press) comes out February 2012.
            There. Enough puffery.

Auto da fe in Vancouver

 I'm in Vancouver, the Canucks have lost game 7 and the Stanley Cup, and my hotel is in the middle of a riot. I go out and there's a festival of 19-year-old idiocy. Cars being overturned and burned. Stupid punks breaking stuff. It gets very ugly. Inhaled my first tear gas since Montreal in 1969. I spend an hour in front of a bar with the owners, very nice guys, who are ashamed of what is happening in their city. Spoiled stupid drunks with no idea of real consequence.....then scrambling hordes in front of riot squad Mounties and a volley of rubber bullets, pepper spray....all a pretty disgraceful spectacle. The cops behaved very well, the exurban punks were loathsome, the crowds taking pictures with their cellphones were part of the problem....heedless people who have no idea of the real consequence, in most parts of the world, of this kind of Animal House behavior...Most people I spoke to were disgusted, and ashamed of the spectacle...a meaningless festival of stupidity.
I'm back in my room and I'm going to bed. The police are moving down the street and arresting anyone in their way. No fooling. Fine with me. Black eye for Vancouver. So stupid. So ridiculous. A population nursed on video games and celebratory violence. Boys committing indictable federal crimes in front of 1000 cameras. Way to go.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Always loved Jeeps, at least up through the 1960s.  I'm not a jeep expert and can't identify them very precisely. I know this is a US military jeep, WWII vintage, because it has the 9-slot grill. They were made by a few different manufacturers, mostly Willys and Ford, in different series, and you can find out a lot more about that here. This one belongs to Sean Wilsey and lives in West Texas after spending most of its life in California. It's a solid original, no rust. Sean offered me a chance to drive it, last winter. It is a perky, snappy little machine, even though it's at least 65 years old. Like so many of the best designs in practically everything, it appeals because it is so obviously utilitarian and unpretentious. It looks tough and spirited, but not because someone thought it should look that way. The engineers who designed it were concerned with what it would do, and they let form flow from function.  This very useful principle was not applied to, say, the design of Dodge pickup trucks--the machines that got the the massive, faux-masculine, aggressive-truck-on-steroids look started--back in the mid-90s. Modern trucks are bloated, pumped-up, supersized. This Jeep is not.
       I remember watching Jack Kerouac on William Buckley's Firing Line in the late Sixties. JK was pretty far gone by then, but still had his puckish sense of humor, and he wasn't about to get pinned down and skewered by Buckley. When Buckley tried to get JK to make a statement about the Vietnam War,  Jack insisted the war was a plot by the Vietnamese to get more jeeps in their country.
                                                                photo: Valerie Breuvart 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hockey Night in Canada

Okay, time for a little nationalism. Cousins Rob and Sandy Macdougall came down to Maine from Montreal today, Rob very worried that he wouldn't be able to catch the Stanley Cup Finals series on TV here in the US of A. But our Brooklin friend and neighbor, Bill Mayher, ex-varsity University of New Hampshire, has widescreen HD, and since NBC has deigned to broadcast the games in the US we were able to watch Vancouver Canucks beat the Boston Bruins 1-0 tonight: Rob and I are the only Vancouver fans in the great State of Maine. 
               To celebrate, Autoliterate presents a Chevrolet Maple Leaf, photo courtesy of our Alberta/Saskatchewan correspondent, Alex Emond. It's a fire truck from the town of Abbey, Saskatchewan that has outlasted several dozen Dalmatians. 
               Almost all Canadian built GMC pickups prior to 1953 used the Chevrolet 216 engine, not the 228 and 248 GMC type placed in U.S. trucks. The Canadian Chevrolet using the larger GMC 228 and 248 was the "Maple Leaf".

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1941-46 Chevrolet pickup, and The Last Picture Show

From Chris Baker, painter, and our man in Southern California.  This one looks awfully close to original, though Chris says all insignia were missing, and the truck's owner didn't know what he had, exactly. Well, that's what Autoliterate is for. This is a 1941-46 Chevrolet pickup. Probably a '41, '42, or  a '46; civilian truck production stopped during the war. I like this truck a lot, in what looks like its original and unrestored condition--that's recycling!-- though I would get rid of those whitewalls as soon as possible. On trucks of that era, standard-procedure at the factory was to paint fenders and running boards black, and I think that is what I'm seeing here.

Some people think of this series as the "Wurlitzer" Chevrolet trucks, and the front grill does call to mind  jukeboxes of the era. There's some art deco going on there.

In a previous post I mentioned Peter Bogdanovich's startling 1971 film, The Last Picture Show (based on a Larry McMurty novel, with the screenplay co-written by Bogdanovich and McMurty). A great early role for Jeff Bridges, and for Cybil Shepherd too. Randy Quaid's first appearance on film. (His next was in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). And a great late-career role for that old John Ford cowboy,  Ben Johnson. It's set in a small Texas town, and the opening shot, as I remember, is Sonny's (Timothy Bottoms) boot pumping the accelerator while trying to start an old pickup truck on a cold Texas morning. I can relate to this. 
I had to check, but the pickup in the movie, co-owned by the Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges characters--is not a '41-'46 Chevrolet, as above, but the immediately preceding series, possibly a '39.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

American Classic

With the permission of the author and of the publisher, Graywolf, Autoliterate is proud to present an excerpt from Salvatore Scibona's wonderful novel The End, which unfolds during one Assumption Day in Cleveland, in 1953. The End is a layered, rich, and thoroughly startling novel from one of the best American writers around.  It was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.
               Our except happens to take place in a 1924 Buick.  Put the novel on your list for the summer.

From The End (Graywolf, 2008)
By Salvatore Scibona
Used by Permission

Sixty years later, Mrs. Marini was riding in the rear of a car that crested the last of many gradual slopes and began its descent into the murky predawn countryside of the Cuyahoga River valley.  She had not traveled outside the city limits since the summer of l905, when Nico had taken her on a train to a resort hotel in Sandusky.  A quartet had played on a dais in the hotel dining room.  All of the better restaurants still employed real musicians at that time.  The two of them ate the most succulent galantine of duck, and waded in the lake, and slept under a silk coverlet in a light, airy room.
            The old car in which she now rode had once ineptly aspired to the middle class (the imitation marble of the footboards was actually linoleum), but, judging from the racket inside and the indefatigable jolting of the machine at every speed, it had long ago learned its place.  However, she was not an authority.  Lina sat in front, and her Vincenzo guided the car through the mud and gravel of the uneven road.  They had been married for seven years. 
The car suffered the inclines terribly: The engine made pitiful screams and repented the affectations of its youth and begged Enzo’s forgiveness; but he was immune and pressed it onward.  Nico, Mrs. Marini recalled, had always treated their horses with humanity and grace.
            She wished one of them would turn around and talk to her.  Her throat emitted a harsh noise to no avail.  The car was a 1924 Buick Roadster.  She had tried to forget this useless datum and therefore had failed.  In general she considered it extravagant that urban working people should own cars, but this was only a clamorous old thing with rubber patching in the canopy, and Enzo did the repairs to it himself.  The young couple lived in a hot-water two-bedroom apartment, a clean place of recent construction in Elephant Park, five blocks from her house.  The three of them often went on excursions to hear live music played or so that Mrs. Marini could buy Lina something pretty downtown, while Enzo smoked in the department store lounge and studied the newspaper.  Enzo offered to drive but always eventually deferred to her preference for the trolley. 
            Mrs. Marini tilted her eyeglasses so that the stems pinched her temples and the image outside came into focus.  She hoped that a hardy agricultural scene would alleviate her present cynicism, but what she beheld was not agriculture.  Agriculture was the domination of a landscape by the hand of man.  What she saw were budding woods that crowded to the edges of every open place as though a barricade held them back from the orchards and the shorn acres of pale, busted stalks and mud.  (It was April.)  Every meadow, in its squareness, manifested a persistent human attention.  It was evident out here that Ohio had recently been a single, dense forest, open only where the rivers drained it, and would rather be so again.  Even from the faces of the bluffs, the trees protruded, laterally.  She was living in a barely domesticated country.  Certainly there were those who found, in the same scene, a grid of cornfields plundering the poor, wild trees, but her priorities were the other way around.  Savages and sylvan paradises did not interest her, even in literature.  She was a city girl.  She wanted to read about civilized people corrupting one another.  She did not want your Zane Grey.  Give her a swimming pool, and it’s poisoned.  Setting was ancillary.  Who poisoned the swimming pool?  That was what she wanted to know.
            Yet as the trip wore on she perceived in spite of herself a more and more powerful intuition of, of—what was the word? she was unsure there was a word—of here-ness.  Providence had brought us here, to this of all places, to our remote country.  No, but it had nothing to do with the Constitution or the Battle of Bull Run.  History, politics, culture, those were her mind’s milieus, and they could not have been more impertinent to this queer intuition, which was neither purely a product of her thoughts nor of the place itself.  Fog rose from an anfractuous river that flickered through the beams of a covered bridge they crossed.  The spirit of the place pressed itself against her senses, but she was not the kind of creature that was capable of letting it in, of becoming an unconscious part of a vast, unconscious whole.  The result was a feeling of sharp physical pain at the base of her neck that rose up the back of her skull, as though a malignant hand were petting her.  She was separated, by virtue of being a conscious animal, from the rest of creation, which was unknowing and therefore complete, and therefore irrevocably real.  The trees were both in the place and of it.  But to know that one was here was to be an awareness amid the limitless unaware; it was to be in a place but never of it, like a pearl in a cake.

Friday, June 3, 2011

trucks and boats


This photo of a late-1955 Chevrolet 3100 is from our man on the South Coast, Chris Baker, a painter who works in Maine and California. He found this one in Carpinteria, CA. The 1955 model year was split between the previous design and the new "Task Force" series of trucks, in production through through 1959. Their styling hallmarks included the truck industry's first wraparound windshield: Chevrolet advertising called it a "Sweep-Sight Windshield".  
            I think of Chris Baker as more of a boat guy than a truck guy. He built houses for a while, and most Mainers would use that occupation as an excuse to drive an enormous truck, but somehow Chris made do with a slightly battered Subaru station wagon. He likes leaving a small footprint. One winter in Maine CB carved himself a new stem for his early 1900s Cape Cod catboat, Conjuror, from a slab of oak that he was given.  Now that he's wintering in Southern California I hope he will recycle a distinguished old car or truck, perhaps my late, lamented 1969 Chevrolet Brookwood wagon (see below) which would be a great machine for hauling canvasses. Not a small-footprint sort of car---it's like driving your living room--but it is a beautiful chunk of recycled metal.
            Speaking of boat guys, I have been working this week at Bill Grant’s boatyard in Sedgwick ME, where Scout, our Cape Dory 25 spends the winter. Early June is always a slightly stressful time, doing dozens of tasks required to get even a simple sailboat like Scout into the water. 

I’ve varnished the teak trim and yesterday applied a new coat of bottom paint. Earlier in the spring, our friend Greg Phillips installed a new anchor roller and did a bunch of other small fixes. With any luck she’ll be going in  the water early next week. BTW my piece on Scout, and learning to love sailing, is in the current (June 2011) issue of Maine magazine…there’s the link, but the website is still stuck on the May issue. So if you want to read my piece, rush to the newsstand, and buy a copy.
          I noticed yesterday that Bill Grant, who seems to know everything there is to know about boats, is also working on what looks like a completely original and unrestored 1939 Ford ½ ton pickup. I’m bringing my camera to the boatyard today and will get some imagery. I also plan to document the drive from No. Brooklin to the boatyard, which takes about 15 minutes along the Reach Road which, logically enough, following Eggemoggin Reach.  To me--and I’m a bit prejudiced--this may not be the most spectacular, but it is the mostly quietly beautiful (as opposed to merely scenic) drive in all Maine. Partly because it is so quiet and unexpected and down-home in it's delights. (e.g., there’s a used car lot on Reach Road with a million-dollar view out over the Reach, and Deer Isle. You'd think it would be trophy home site, but, no, it’s a used car lot.) Anyway, that’s a future post--once I get the boat in the water, the new novel started, and etc.