Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Quite Simply, The Red Car

Peter Egan, one of my favorite writers and role models, has an excellent column at Road & Track about a childhood influence of his: a book (remember when kids read those?) entitled The Red Car, by Don Stanford.

I picked up the magazine while wasting time at Barnes & Noble, and the article immediately stuck out at me. It was excellent. Egan went on a trip down to Texas, and meandering through the flat, hot, and (in my opinion) extremely boring monotony of West Texas in a Toyota Corolla, he managed to read this book, for the first time since he was younger than I am. He says there are two kinds of car enthusiasts: "1) Those who never heard of The Red Car and 2) those who read the book at an impressionable age and had their lives ruined by it."

He, needless to say, belongs to the latter category, and I do too, to a certain extent. Although it is a truly dated book--first published in 1954 A.D., it did have an influence on my life when I read it at about thirteen; the same age--about sixth grade--that Peter Egan read it. It (1) made me incredibly dippy about all British sports cars, the MG TC described in the book especially, and (2) gave me those wild, giddy, often vain hopes that childhood hoards, about having a road race, just like in the book, in latter-day Baldwin, much of which even now is pre-fab Exurbia.

The story would be cliched, I presume, if I had ever read any other children's books from the period of the Fifties, which prized conformity to social norms in many respects, sometimes at the cost of individual creativity. However, in this book, the main character, Hap Adams, rebels in a mild, starchy way against the establishment, and along with other teens in the town, convince the elders and bigwigs of Bullet, CO to hold a road race through what Egan calls, "earnest argument and good behavior, etc." on the part of the teenagers in the town. Eventually, the adults are won over and the race proceeds.

Hap is shocked to learn that he can't compete because he's too young, but instead of pulling an Anakin and turning to the Dark Side, or pulling a Harry and going all moody for a year, he accepts it with equanimity and instead co-drives with his pseudo-father figure, the eccentric French mechanic, Frenchy, who had left France and an illustrious amateur racing career after he had killed a spectator during a race. Brought out of retirement, and after one of the best-described climactic scenes I have ever read, even more suprising from a book of this caliber, these two win their class, over the better-funded, arrogant and professional racers.

There are several underlying themes in this book: teens convincing their elders not by rebellion or shouting, but by setting a good example and doing good work around the town--what a concept! When I compare it to some of the more modern, angsty, profanity-laden "teen" books I've read, it is no wonder our civilization is going to the dogs. Another theme is the racing car itself--the Red Car, the crux of the book. It is a fire-engine-red 1948 MG TC, a beautiful car, but one that you will probably not appreciate because it is, of course, very dated. In an America where new is better, old is forgotten, to the detriment of all. Another theme is the amateur versus the professional racer. Hap Adams and his driver, Frenchy, are amateurs. John Arata, who races against them in a similar car, is not. He races for the money, as almost all race drivers do today. This was, hard as it is to believe, a serious battle at the time the book was published, and there was much friction between the gentleman racers of the early days and the slick, factory-sponsored--but very skilled--new breed. This battle has already been fought, and in that sense reading the book is like walking over Gettysburg field, but far from turning me off the book, it gives it a philosophical depth, and much more to contemplate then the author intended.

Egan writes that he found the book lurking in his school library while he was in sixth grade, and he and all the other boys read it and each gave a book report on it. He reports that his English teacher's eyes glazed over when each student in turn stood up and announced that he, too, was reporting on The Red Car, by Don Stanford. My own story of finding this book is considerably less romantic, and far more depressingly modern. I read about it in a collection of essays on motoring and car culture in general called Motor Oil for the Car Guy's Soul, by Kevin Clemens. It, too, was an excellent book, and Clemens describes his Red Car Road to Damascus experience in similar terms to Egan's. As I say, I was around 13, and purchased the book for much too much (eighteen dollars sticks in my head--for a thin, but well-preserved paperback.) I devoured it, and it is one of the few books, along with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that I have read again immediately after finishing it the first time.

Another theme is the amateur versus the professional racer. Hap Adams and his driver, Frenchy, are amateurs. John Arata, who races against them in a similar car, is not. He races for the money, as almost all race drivers do today. This was, hard as it is to believe, a serious battle at the time the book was published, and there was much friction between the gentleman racers of the early days and the slick, factory-sponsored--but very skilled--new breed. This battle has already been fought, and in that sense reading the book is like walking over Gettysburg field, but far from turning me off the book, it gives it a philosophical depth, and much more to contemplate then the author intended.

Gifted with an amateurishly philosophical mind along with a deeply romantic (don't think eros, think agape) nature, I may be reading too much into the book; it's something I do have a problem with. Books, they say, are windows into an author's mind, and they can bring a deep sense of something private, something between you and the author. In that sense, they beat plays, movies, music into the ground, and it is for that reason that I "love them more than these," to paraphrase Jesus (generally inadvisable.)

This essay has devolved into a confession of my love affair with books, of which The Red Car is only a symptom; one of a painful but influential series of growths on my mind, with names perhaps familiar to you--Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Crunch Cons, the Bible, Eragon, A Study in Scarlet, All Creatures Great and Small, Watership Down, The Thrawn Trilogy, the Narnia books, Jeeves & Wooster, The Great Gatsby, Old Man and the Sea, The Beyond, and finally--The Red Car; I can only hope these manifold growths do not prove cancerous, or I'm done for.

Update: This person also has an account of how the Red Car influenced him. An incredibly similar story to Egan's and Clemens', and even, in a sense, to my own.

Update II: I've added a "Blog Roll" below the "About Me" on the left-hand side. Please, utilize it.

1 Comments:

sweetggirl said...

It sounds like a really good book! I like the switch in topics!