By Roger Boylan
[Quoted passages from “My Life in Cars,” in Due Considerations, by John Updike. New York: Knopf, 2007.]
John Updike, who died last January, was a man of many interests and broad horizons: novelist, art critic, short-story writer, poet, and, up to a point, car guy—or should I say, automotive esthete. Not for him the oil-stained T-shirt and under-the-hood exertions of a weekend. He couldn’t have cared less about the 0-60 time or highway mpg of a car. Nevertheless, as he says in Due Considerations, his last collection of essays and reviews, he truly loved cars. “One lives in these machines, and loves them sometimes without knowing it,” as he says. So, in a delightful short piece called “My Life In Cars,” he sketches an auto-autobiography.
He starts by reminiscing fondly about his first car, “a ’55 four-door Waterfall Blue Ford,” but fails to state whether it was a Fairlane or a Crown Victoria. I’d go for the Fairlane, as the more common model, and one commonly available, my research tells me, in Waterfall Blue.
This car survived for several years as a transporter first of the young bachelor, then of the married man and his growing family; and it made the transition from New York City, where, Updike says, his indignation still simmering, “the Waterfall Blue paint got spattered with drops of tar,” to halcyon Massachusetts. In the countryside, no further such outrages occurred. Updike raised his first family, started writing for The New Yorker, and drove the Ford back and forth to New York City. It died at a respectful age, having been traded in, then bought back, by its deeply affectionate owner, who never forgot it, as if it were a faithful dog, or an old horse. But after all, as he says, “We in America make love in our cars, and listen to ball games…small wonder the landscape is sacrificed to these dreaming vehicles of our ideal and onrushing manhood.”
More Fords followed, mostly convertibles, as the author’s successes grew: The Centaur; Rabbit, Run, innumerable short stories…. He had the wherewithal. Thunderbirds? Galaxies? He doesn’t say, but moves briskly on to his first non-Ford, a “dear little dove-gray 1965 [Chevy] Corvair with a convertible top you pulled up by hand.” Alas, as a certain Mr. Nader took some pains to point out at around the same time, this dear little car was also, shall we say, unsafe at any speed. Updike discovered this when he first rammed his into another car, then crashed into a telephone pole. In the latter case, he hints elsewhere, the mishap occurred at least partly because of “too many Stingers under his belt,” but the car’s general flimsiness was also to blame, result: Exit Corvair. And, in 1968, exeunt Updikes, to England.
In England he fell for a Citroën, and brought it along when he returned to the States. Again, he doesn’t say what model, but choices were limited, and his description can leave no doubt: “When the engine started, the chassis rose up on cushions of air, and when the trip was over it sighed regretfully while subsiding back.” His DS was green, unspecified as to hue, but probably the metallic-celery that was a common selection from the palette back then. This car became, as you might expect, something of a taskmistress; Updike loved it, but found its Gallic flair wearing thin after a year or so back in the States. “Under the hood,” he says, “it harbored a snake pit of tightly packed connections that only a very slender and determined contortionist could reach.” He found just such a contortionist, a French-car specialist, but more than an hour’s drive from his home. Still, he made the journey whenever necessary, until the day when his “green-skinned inamorata” had a coughing fit and nearly expired in a tunnel; the affair, says Updike, was then over, but adds wistfully that he caught sight of his ex-DS “in a muddy front yard in Haverford” and that he had assured himself that the next owner would treat the car with the respect it deserved.
After a divorce, Updike took up with a Mustang, but this must have been around 1975, era of the misbegotten Mustang II; no surprise, then, that his disappointment is palpable. “No Citroën substitute,” he observes. The Mustang soon passed into the hands of his older son, and thence into those of the young man’s girlfriend, from where it was expertly connected with a row of concrete guard posts and murdered–and good riddance, too, reads the subtext. But our man, whose literary star was rising ever higher with Rabbit Redux and The Coup, had even further to sink in the automotive realm, even from a Mustang II. Newly remarried, Updike went out and bought a used red Ford Maverick. Now, the Maverick was a fine-looking car, but God help us, what a lemon it was. Updike bought his “because I liked the name and the pattern of ranch brands on the black leather seats,” he explains, then adds “it proved to be my boyhood nightmare: a car that would not start.” It demonstrated this allergy to ignition first on rainy mornings, then on damp ones, then whenever there was the hint of moisture in the air–which, in Massachusetts, is all the time.
It was time for more foreign metal. Updike tried Audis, but couldn’t warm to them, and had a hard time coaxing them up the snowy hill atop which he lived (evidently they weren’t Quattros). He reverted to Ford, buying a Taurus–or maybe two, he couldn’t remember. Finally, after a lifetime resisting (“I had vowed never to buy a Japanese car”), he gave in and bought a Subaru, for that snowy hill. The Subie conquered it, and his Nippophobia, and was soon joined in the Updike garage by yet another Japanese, an Infiniti, again unspecified, but probably—given the terrain, climate, and era (early to mid ‘90s) a QX4. It is with the Infiniti and the Subaru cohabiting in his garage that Updike finishes his lovely car-memoir, and sums up with a most Updikean flourish.
“Looking back, I can pluck certain flowers of sensation from the blurred roadside. The ticking of the heater warming up in my father’s ’36 Buick; …the powerful notched feel of the floor shift of the lime-green Mustang, summoning RPMs from the vasty gearbox…. The blasé sweep of the brilliantly engineered windshield wipers as I drove my children, through a London downpour, to school in the Citroën, its pointy green hood imperviously beaded with raindrops…Heaven itself may not know, exactly, the number of miles my cars have carried me—back and forth, most of them, on forgettable errands that seemed important at the time. Not just “seemed”—were important, if a mundane life is important. I am proud of all my miles.”
So should we all be, of all of ours.
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