Auto Biography

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UnknownAuto Biography
Earl Swift
It Books, May 2014
368 Pages
$18.50

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To the casual passerby on North Carolina’s state Route 168—and the County inspectors—Moyock Muscle looked like a junkyard. The lot was overflowing, with hundreds of cars in terrible condition. Cars stacked on top of each other. Cars cannibalized to be parts donors. Even on contemporary Google Map street views, with the cars neatly arranged in rows, Moyock Muscle is reminiscent of a rusty, boxy graveyard. And yet, customers will pay a premium for the one rusty box of a car that catches their attention, the one that makes them feel a twinge of nostalgia.

“What you might think is junk, another man’s going to see as treasure. . . . The same goes for all these cars. Somebody wants every one of them, and they’ll be willing to spend some money to get what they want. Because this”—here [Arney] stabs at the Chevelle with a thick index finger—“is American history. And the people who buy a car like this understand that” (8-9).

In 2009, both a car and a man caught reporter Earl Swift’s attention. The car was a teal blue 1957 Chevy station wagon with a litany of problems, including significant holes in the undercarriage. The owner was Tommy Arney, a successful local businessman with a violent past. With a bit of lobbying, Swift convinces Arney to finally get around to restoring the Chevy. Meanwhile, he sets out to uncover its past: its designer (the famous Harley Earl), its place on the factory floor, and all twelve former owners. Swift does an impressive job of marrying all of these rich storylines into a compelling, cohesive piece of long-form journalism.

Of all of the Chevy’s owners—a veterinarian, a free-spirited woman, a disgraced doctor and his gay lover, and many more—Tommy Arney stands out as a fantastic character. Elementary school dropout, strip-club owner, violent felon, cancer survivor: he wouldn’t be out of place as a thug in a Carl Hiaasen novel, and yet Swift presents us his real-life exploits in such a touching, wonderful way that we are equally rooting for him to succeed at restoring the car and also triumph over his federal indictment for bank fraud. His customers are similarly devoted:

Many feel compelled to seek him out, to share with him the power contained by the metal, rubber, and glass on his lot. Some can bandy about engine sizes and performance specs, but most don’t; they’re excited by encountering a long-ago and (so they all say) simpler time in their lives, moved by a resemblance of childhood joys, or clumsy teenage reconnaissance, or critical junctures as lovers, spouses, parents—memories interwoven with, and inseparable from, those of riding in cars, in a car exactly like this behind this skinny melamine wheel (10).

In bringing us such a complex cast of characters, Swift’s journalism is impeccable. His boots-on-the-ground research efforts to suss out the full fifty-four-year story of the ’57 Chevy should be on the syllabus at all the best journalism schools. Swift is present throughout his book (he spent years at Moyock Motors observing Arney’s life, the restoration process, and all of its sundry setbacks), but he never brings his ego to the proceedings. His job is to record, yes, but mainly to put this car’s long history into context, a project at which he succeeds beautifully. Like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Auto Biography uses classic car restoration to explore something grander. Theseus’s boat is not just a collection of planks. The ’57 Chevy is not just a car. It’s the beauty of midcentury design. It’s human drama. It’s American history. As Swift says, “The cars [Arney] sells are fossils of the twentieth century American experience, of a place and a people so utterly devoted to the automobile and changed by it in uncountable ways” (9).

Without this devotion, the ’57 Chevy would have been long lost to the dustbin of history. The labor Arney and his team put into the restoration is astonishing. It spans three years, and includes completely replacing the undercarriage and engine, mounting the car on a “rotisserie,” and changing its color to “Tangerine Twist” via numerous layers of paint by Painter Paul. There is no lack of technical details for the wrench set, but even those of us whose entire knowledge of engines comes from an episode of The Magic School Bus can appreciate what the Moyock Muscle men are achieving by restoring this Chevy.

By the start of the last section on page 263, when they’ve sunk hundreds of man-hours into the Chevy and Arney’s business fortunes are going rapidly down the tubes with the twin disasters of the 2008 housing crash and his federal indictment, we start to wonder if they will ever finish. For all of the optimism on display here, Swift never lets us forget that the reality of life in America is often complicated, uncertain, and without shiny chrome finish. Auto Biography has a bittersweet ending, which makes the message Swift builds for us not so much about restoration as redemption, but about the lasting importance of having a project. Some tangible efforts to work out our dreams.

***

Claire Blechman is from one frozen hinterland or another. She is an honorable-mention-winning writer, thanks in part to her MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in The Fiction Desk, Gargoyle, Interrobang, and the Vault Guide to the Top 100 Law Firms. She wrote her whole website by herself, then unimaginatively named it claireblechman.com