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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Montreal

Visiting Montreal last week, we stayed with artist friends Rebecca Duclos & David Ross in St-Henri, in the southwestern part of the city. It was always a working-class neighbourhood and, for a long time, the poorest neighborhood in Canada. It is just down the hill from perhaps the richest neighbourhood, Westmount.  Herbert Brown Ames-- philanthropist,  shoe manufacturer,  city alderman, and Member of Parliament-- revealed southwestern Montreal's dire poverty, in 1897, in his pioneering  The City Below the Hill: a sociological study of a portion of the city of Montreal.  In many quality of life statistics, the district ranked below Calcutta.
           There are acres of old industrial buildings. Imperial Tobacco was the big employer in St-Henri, along with tanneries, and shoe mills. Now the  Métro (subway) stops here, which makes the district easily accessible for the rest of the city. The Atwater Market is a brilliant place to buy Quebec produce, and an startling variety of bread, meat, cheese. The Lachine Canal, which was a reeking industrial sewer, has been cleaned up. Many industrial buildings have been condominiumized or are in the process. This process, which has slowed down in the US as the property market has slumped, seems to be going strong in most of urban Canada.

       It is probably because I grew up there, but all forms of Montreal vernacular architecture have a powerful hold on me. A lot of  19th century Montreal resembles parts of Dublin, and other Irish and British provincial cities. And parts of Montreal look like nowhere else. The crazy winding staircases may not have been the best choice for the city's subarctic winter climate, but they were cheaper to build than indoor staircases, so hundreds of Montreal streets are lined with them.

At the massive St-Henri police station/ firehouse, looking up, I noticed these bas-relief scenes of cops and robbers and firemen:

Speaking of crime, my favorite Montreal blog, Coolopolis, has a post on the latest in the city's ongoing Mafia war.

Wide-Track Pontiacs

Always loved Pontiac ads from the early-to-mid-Sixties. The cars were stretched so wide and the people were so tiny. There's a good piece on the 1962 Grand Prix Pontiacs up at one of my favorite sites, jalopy journal

Friday, November 11, 2011

Advanced Design

©2011Scott Dorrance 

Don't often see 60 year old trucks in Maine, the saltwater state. Especially trucks like this one, clearly a survivor, not a meticulous restoration. Photographer Scott Dorrance spotted it on Park Street, just of Congress Street.

©2011 Scott Dorrance

The only thing I can imagine is that the truck spent most of the last 6 decades in a
barn, or in a truck-friendly climate, like the other Portland. This is one of the Advanced Design Series trucks that GM produced 1947-55. I drove one from Banff, Alberta to Panther Junction, Texas (and back!) in 1984, with Mr Toby Clark. It wasn't the fastest road trip ever...

Deer Lodge, Montana (I think) we were towing 6 canoes, and the truck wasn't up to Interstate speeds--but it was an...adventure. The best kind of road trip.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I have always been intrigued by Montreal architecture, and when I was last there, in September, on the Endless O'Briens Book Tour I went around taking photos of buildings and streets which I admired. Of course in that September light the whole place looked "beautiful"; like a (somewhat banal) movie of itself. In one of his Montreal short stories, the author Clark Blaise has a character thinking, as he's driving on a hideous road in the sprawl of northern Montreal exurbs, that Montreal can also be a heartbreakingly ugly city, one of the ugliest. And that is undeniably true, especially in, say, March.  But there's also no denying its radiant power as a built place, as a vibrant & changing town with a sure sense of itself. Montreal has always possessed its own urban style. The town Montreal may remind you of most is not Paris (the only thing they have in common is the French language, sort of; the argots of Montrealais and Parisien are the same language, but only just) but Brooklyn, another mostly 19th century sprawling industrial town: row houses, neighbourhoods, industrial zones, churches. Of course Brooklyn has Manhattan across the river, which makes a difference. One o the wonderful things about Montreal compared to any other city in the world counting as major is how easy it is to leave. Cross the bridges to the south shore and in fifteen minutes you're driving past cornfields. Head north, and in forty five minutes you're into bear and moose country.

Above, rue de la Commune. Actually this part of town is much more like Dublin along the quays, or bits of Liverpool, than anywhere else. Like them it was mostly built as a 19th century trading/industrial city within the British Empire.
     Most Montreal houses are joined by at least one wall with their neighbours, which makes for more efficient heating, and this city has wickedly cold Januarys.

The Victorian city:

Montreal has a pretty strong modernist moment in the 1960s; I.M. Pei's Place Ville Marie is one of the important buildings of that era. Most of what was built in the Seventies and Eighties was, by comparison, unfortunate.

Centre-ville, seen from Westmount Summit:

Street, lower Outremont neighbourhood:

The fromagerie, ave. Bernard, Outremont:

P'tit dejeuner, ave Bernard, Outremont:

Yikes, I went to kindergarden here: Notre Dame de Sion, attached to the lycee Marie-de-France.

Westmount houses:

The Hart house on Cote St-Antoine: I believe that Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly from Trois-Rivières in the 1840s and was the first Jew to be elected to a legislature in the British Empire and then after a struggle, and a reelection, finally permitted take his seat .

Lansdowne Avenue:

More Westmount houses:

The Westmount novel genre is a bit thin. Two that immediately come to mind are Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game. And Gwethalyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven. And of course there is always The O'Briens.

Mercury Monarch in Vancouver

Back in July, Autoliterate came across a wonderful and mostly-original Canadian Mercury M-3 pickup in Wolfville, N.S.  Mercury trucks were essentially rebadged Fords that were sold in Canada.
           The Mercury Monarch was another Canada-only Ford model, and we just found one, parked out by English Bay, in Vancouver's West End. Best guess is that it's a 1951 model. Not an unrestored original, certainly. Nor is it a classic Mercury lead-sled. (See Autoliterate's post on Mercury Charlie)  But it did look like a pretty cool ride, sun visor, fender skirts, suicide doors and all.

Maple leaves, a British lion, a crown. Canada, eh?

My Brilliant Careerism, part 9

Just received an ARC of the U.S. edition of  THE O'BRIENS. U.S. pub. date is March 6 2012, with a launch party at the Irish Arts Center in Hell Kitchen, NYC, co-sponsored by NYU's Glucksmann Ireland House and the Canadian Consulate in NYC. 
       (A list of events planned for NYC, TX, NC, ME and VT is up at my website. Hope to see you along the way.)

                                      "A distinctly 20th century family epic . . . pitch-perfect. " —National Post

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nissan Figaro and Mitsubishi Space Gear

I walked around Vancouver on Sunday afternoon, trying to overcome some serious jet-lag. Of course I had my camera, the Canon SX210IS, which has turned out to be a great machine, and kept my eyes open for appealing vehicles. Autoliterate has been long on literate, lately; short on autos. Time to readjust the balance.
         The first Vancouver machine that caught my eye, in an alley in the West End, was this little Japanese import:

It had right-hand-drive, and a certain lustrous quality of fit and finish: Japanese cars sold into their home market seem to exceed the (pretty high) standards of fit and finish typical of the cars Nissan, Toyota, Honda, et al sell in North America. This is a Figaro, and it's a Nissan, though the Nissan nameplate is nowhere to be seen. Nissan built and sold 20,000 Figareaux in the early Nineties. They were originally intended exclusively for the home market, but a bunch went to the U.K.. And imported Japanese specialty cars are quite a hot item on the Canadian West  Coast, apparently. Learn about importing Figaros and other Japanese vehicles here.
           The Figaro radiates a certain Hello Kitty-esque cuteness, perhaps annoying; and I suppose a lot of car men would see it as the classic girl-car: teeny and twee. But I distrust gendering of vehicles, find it kind of boring; anyway girl-cars are generally more appealing to me than the ersatz masculinity which North American manufacturers ladle onto vehicles aimed at the man-market, especially those monstrous huge pickup trucks, which seem toylike and babyish really: enormous bruto-Tonkas.

I've spent a lot of time on the British Columbia coast this book-tour season, and have noticed that imported Japanese 4WD vans are extraordinarily popular out here, right-hand drive and all. I've seen a lot of Mitsubishi Delica "Space Gear" vans (gotta love Japanese vehicle nomenclature; and these compact, rugged-looking little vans do seem to have a lot of space for gear, though they seem rugged too, and nimble--anything but "delicate"). In the U.S., almost everything has to be huge, or at least getting bigger every year. In the rest of the world, small is tough.

The vans seem to be  popular with tree-planters and hippies out here in British Columbia, and surfers, and people who spend a lot of time on bad roads through rain forest or the mountains.

I first noticed them abaord ferries to Vancouver Island and Denman Island last month. My most recent sightings were on the sedate streets of Vancouver's West End. Learn more about importing them here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Freighters on the nod, English Bay

Whenever I'm in Vancouver, I walk the path along the seawall in Stanley Park, missing Maine and reconnecting with the idea of ocean. There are always bulk carriers parked on moorings out in the Bay, waiting their turns to steam up Burrard Inlet and fill with coal, wheat, potash, etc. You can tell they're empty because they are riding high. And there are more of them out there than usual: I wonder if the declining economy and the drop in commodity prices has slowed international trade? China isn't as hungry for Canadian raw materials this year as it was last year.
    When I see the ships out on English Bay, I'm always reminded of lines from Bruce Cockburn's Wondering Where the Lions Are:
Freighters on the nod on the surface of the bay 
One of these days we're going to sail away 
Sail into eternity 
Some kind of ecstasy 
Got a hold on me
And I'm wondering where the lions are.
     Did Bruce write the song, or have the vision, while staying at the Sylvia?--my favorite  Vancouver hotel.  Excellent views of English Bay. The Chelsea Hotel of the Pacific Northwest.

     Well the B.C. Lions (Vancouver's (Canadian) football team) look to be heading for the Grey Cup...if they win their Western Finals, as expected...the 99th Grey Cup is being played in Vancouver, later this month. The Montreal Alouettes still have a chance in the east...but the Hamilton Tiger Cats whipped them badly last weekend. Are the Toronto Argonauts still in the running? What about the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers? The Calgary Stampeders, and the Edmonton Eskimos?
Freighters on the nod/on the surface of the bay.