Car enthusiasts believe every car has a story, although I think most of us would have a difficult time managing to tie one together that involves a man beating a K-9 police officer with his own subdued dog. That's what Earl Swift has pulled off with Auto Biography, his fantastic tale of a well-loved '57 Chevy and its violent but charming owner.
The premise of this book is misleadingly simple: Trace an iconic American car through its history while simultaneously following the path of an iconically maverick American through his, up until the point their futures become one.
Auto Biography does deliver on this premise, but it does so by telling a story that's far more hilarious, profane (if you don't like the word "motherfucker" you shouldn't pick it up), and complex than that.
The story it tells of Harley Earl and the genesis of the '57 Chevy is, like Swift's work on his book about the interstate highway system in the U.S., straightforward without being oversimplified. There's much to learn and meditate on even if you think you know all there is to know about post-war Detroit muscle. He also provides the context for its existence and its later popularity.
The story he tells of the car's owners and, in particular, anti-hero protagonist Tommy Arney, is so detailed and informed by such thorough reportage I had to use Google to make sure Swift wasn't embellishing — and I mean that as a compliment.
Arney is a poorly educated rogue who, in moments of confrontation, transforms into a violent Hulk-like figure who gets into fights with sailors, thieves, athletes, and the aforementioned police dog. Yet, he's also a shrewd businessman and loyal friend with an encyclopedic knowledge of American cars.
Like the '57 Chevy himself, he represents all the excesses of our American identity, both the good and the bad. Without giving too much away, much of the book revolves around his race to restore his '57 Chevy Wagon as the FBI, county planners, and creditors conspire to take everything he's built.
Oddly enough, If the book can be compared to any work it's probably Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which revolves around Gary Gilmore, his troubled life, and all the history that led up to his killing two people before himself being executed by the state.
I promise you this book doesn't take such a bleak turn, but in its capturing and retelling of intimate moments, Swift has gone a long way towards achieving Mailer's sense of personal history. If you only read one of these books, though, definitely read Auto Biography. It's far more entertaining and a lot less depressing. It also goes to prove that non-fiction works about cars can be thoughtful and probing.
It's the best contemporary book I've read about automobiles since A.J. Baime's Go Like Hell, and I enjoyed the hell out of that.