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Car Sick
by Published on

Here in my car I feel safest of all I can lock all my doors It’s the only way to live In cars —Gary Numan, “Cars”

You could say that P.J. O’Rourke has suffered a stretch of inauspiciousness. His 2001 book, The CEO of the Sofa, was delivered to stores on Sept. 10 and promptly never mentioned by anyone again. His next, 2004’s Peace Kills: America’s Fun New Imperialism, tried to skim comic cream from entirely too sour a carton of then-current events. The one after that, a book-length exposition on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, came out in 2007, just as America’s financial services sector was getting its invisible hand caught in the free-market cookie jar.

His latest, Driving Like Crazy, scheduled for release June 1, seems more fortuitously timed. It’s a three-decade anthology of O’Rourke’s magazine writing about cars and trucks and motorcycles, and it arrives just as the American auto industry, repository of so much foundational American myth and stupidity, performs its carefully calibrated bellyflop into the shallow end of the American economy.

American cars are screwed. General Motors announced last month that it plans to shutter 400 dealerships annually between now and 2012. GM is also “temporarily” closing 13 U.S. assembly plants, including one in Arlington that’s going off-line this month for nine weeks, to clear out inventory. Ford is retooling the Michigan plant that once built Explorers and Lincoln Navigators to crank out carbon-minimizing copies of its European Focus. Chrysler is undergoing a “surgical” bankruptcy before being sold to Italy’s Fiat, which will presumably allow the company to re-emerge as “New Chrysler.”

Try not to think of Coke.

***

To O’Rourke, these are signs of an automotive apocalypse. And like most essentially moral satirists, O’Rourke is funniest when his dudgeon is redlined.

But O’Rourke is only funny up to precisely the point at which one succumbs to the temptation to take him seriously, and O’Rourke asks to be taken seriously on his dedication page, where he quotes fellow car journalist David E. Davis Jr. as follows:

“We drive our cars because they make us free. With cars, we need not wait in airline terminals, or travel only where the railroad tracks go. Governments detest our cars: they give us too much freedom. How do you control people who can climb into a car at any hour of the day or night and drive who knows where?”

That has the seductive ring of something you might like to be true, an echo of Rush drummer Neil Peart’s post-Randian Hot Wheels fantasy “Red Barchetta.” Only it’s complete and utter crap from start to stop. The American government detests our cars? By paving the place from sea to shining sea so we don’t have to wait for the trains? By enforcing fuel subsidies up and down the supply chain? By propping up the most regressive practitioners of American automotive myopia? By stimulating a moribund economy with infusions of cash to build more roads and shore up sagging bridges?

If the mood-setting dedication is too secondhand an illustration of bankrupt Republican rhetoric, let’s cut straight to O’Rourke’s own introduction:

The feminists grabbed our women, The liberals banned our guns, The health cops snuffed out our cigarettes, The bailout has our funds, The laws of breathalyzing Put an end to our roadside bars, Circle the Fords and Chevys boys, THEY’RE COMING TO TAKE OUR CARS

For the record, O’Rourke is apparently happily married to an attractive younger woman, smokes what and when and where he pleases, and … umm, wait, when exactly did we take his guns?

Liberals aren’t coming to take O’Rourke’s precious cars. Barack Obama, in a transparently last-minute insertion as O’Rourke’s straw-filled bogeyman, isn’t really going to mandate that new cars run on wheatgrass sprouts. Recreational access to anything Americans want to drive all the hell over—streambeds, mountains, meadows, national monuments, too-slow bunnies—isn’t under threat. It’s O’Rourke’s long-established shtick to champion fun, in all its messy impropriety, as a synonymous stand-in for freedom. But to stand at the tail end of a disastrous SUV boom, with three gas-guzzlers in his driveway and a lifetime of professional coddling by the automotive industry under his ever-expanding belt and complain that the government begrudges us our cars is just dumb.

Why is it always the people most thoroughly drenched with grace and good luck who are so quick to assume the mantle of imaginary oppression? Is it really going to affect O’Rourke’s pursuit of happiness if a new 100-miles-per-gallon Hummer hybrid gains traction?

***

“The car is a cultural marker within a patriarchal construct,” O’Rourke writes. “The car must be understood to embody both a socioeconomic text and a political metatext. And if you believe that, somebody should back over you with a car.”

In other words: “It would be a violation of car nut logic to talk about what cars mean. They mean I don’t have to walk home.”

Driving Like Crazy

Amen. Yet cars are more than simple transportation. That’s why we make movies about them and write songs about them and have our pictures taken sprawled across their hoods. Hell yeah cars are cultural markers, and personal markers too. You can map your entire life around what you drive and when and where. Every car comes with its own story.

Incredibly dumb things I have done in cars: Drive a 1980 Chevy Suburban (my dad’s) with a loose steering gear from Clear Lake City to Galveston while touching the wheel with nothing but my teeth; drive a sixth-hand 1970 Porsche 914 (mine) at 120 miles per hour up I-45 to Conroe in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, drunk as a skunk; lose my virginity in the uncomfortably humped back seat of a 1984 Camaro (my mom’s), or try to anyhow, until that bored campus cop showed up with a flashlight and not enough sense to mind his own damn business; and crack.

Incredibly fun things I have done in cars: driving the Suburban to Galveston with my teeth; stem-winding that little Volks hybrid up to the lake with the Targa top stowed; and getting more or less laid for the first time. (The crack was a terrible idea to start with and, as it turned out, cut to the point of pointlessness with soap, and therefore no fun at all.)

We all love our cars. As an infant, I was driven across the country in a blanketed footlocker in the seatbeltless backseat of my grandparents’ yellow Ford Galaxie 500. Twenty-five years later, those same grandparents lent me cash to buy a used, gold 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Brougham Royale on the installment plan. A generous editor later fronted me the money to buy a 1970 slant-six Dodge Stepside. I inherited my other grandmother’s 1977 canary yellow Cadillac Eldorado, with working eight-track. What I’d really wanted was the 1949 Caddie my great-granny had driven into a neighbor’s oak the last time her foot mistook the brakes for the gas. The fire department had to wait for her boy Henry, my grandpa, to arrive at the scene, because no way was great-granny going to unlock the door for those strange men, broken nose or no.

I’ve driven from Houston to Long Island and back in an Escort wagon, listening to a cassette tape of Patti Smith’s Horses the whole way. I’ve moved two cats home from Portland in a $500 Nissan Maxima. I drove an ’82 Toyota pickup from iced-in Houston to Oregon via Illinois, trading recreational herbs for a fuel pump one Sunday in Wyoming. I slept in the backseat of the Olds in a casino parking lot in Lake Charles after a particularly unsuccessful evening of blackjack.

I drove the Stepside from Terlingua to Houston and back at least twice with a drive shaft that sent the frame into shivers between 53 and 59 mph, and had to coast it off the exit ramp into a San Antonio Shell station when the clutch pedal dropped out. A linkage had come unlinked, and I relinked it with baling wire, which got me the rest of the way to Houston, where I parked it and watched the aftermarket gauges melt into the dashboard as the truck’s tractor-like electrical system ignited in flame and smoke.

I ended up pouring five figures into patching up the Stepside before abandoning it in Austin and finally unloading it for $500, learning the hard way that things with wheels and motors make piss-poor investments. Dumb, yes, but fun.

None of these things are as dumb or as much fun as the things P.J. O’Rourke has gotten to do in cars. He’s raced with former Monkee Michael Nesmith across the Baja Peninsula and tested Range Rovers in India. As a young gonzo punk he wrote a piece for National Lampoon called “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.” He survived to write a follow-up 30 years down the road called “How to Drive Fast When the Drugs are Mostly Lipitor, the Wing-Wang Needs More Squeezing Than It Used to Before It Gets the Idea, and Spilling Your Drink Is No Problem If You Keep the Sippy Cups from When Your Kids Were Toddlers and Leave the Baby Seat in the Back Seat so that When You Get Pulled Over You Look Like a Perfectly Innocent Grandparent.”

What exactly is he complaining about again?

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.