Auto Biography by Earl Swift


Guest Post Today! My brother Steve Clifford agreed to write about Auto Biography, Charlottesville author Earl Swift's new book. There are few people who care more about cars than Steve. On a visit to the cemetery where our parents are buried, as we strolled by the graves, he recounted the specific cars purchased and sold by people in the 1950s. This is a man who wrote to Cadillac to express dismay about a design feature of the 1994 Cadillac. An executive called Steve to say he agreed; a few years later the design was changed. A book starring a '57 Chevy is a good one for him. 

 This is a true story about a two-tone green 1957 Chevrolet middle-model Station Wagon and each of its 13 owners during the last 57 years.

The story begins on Friday in September 2010 with a dramatic description of Tommy Arney, the 13th owner of the car. Tommy is someone that the author has met, and comes to know well as the story progresses through one surprising event after another. The book cleverly intersperses stories about the earlier 12 owners of the car. It is altogether a suspense-filled and fascinating book. What does Tommy Arney do with the car? You will never guess.

Tommy Arney is anything but ordinary.  For example:

Under his right arm is the ghost of a surgery he endured without general anesthesia, its healing compromised when a few hours after he was wheeled from the O.R., he snuck out of the hospital for a beer at a nearby strip club, got into a fight, and reopened the incision in such manner that he drenched himself, the club, and a neighboring 7-Eleven in blood.

Tommy Arney is the owner of the strip club and he also owns Moyock Muscle, a restoration shop and old car carcass storage facility (some might call a junkyard), in Moyock, North Carolina, a few miles south of Norfolk, Virginia. The '57 Chevy station wagon has seen better days since it was born at a Chevrolet plant in Baltimore.  It sits outside in the "junkyard". It is sadly rusted, tattered torn and worn.

Its condition reminds me of an old hymn I once heard:

On a hill far away
Stood my old Chevrolet
All ragged and tattered and torn
And I said that day to the old Chevrolet
I'll trade you some day for a Ford.

Tommy's mother's relatives were from a mountainside north of Boone, North Carolina.  The author notes that:

There they traded pistol shots and DNA with other tribes of the forest, and bred among themselves as well, until generations on, when some of them moved down off the mountain, they carried some fairly serious craziness in their blood.

And indeed we see some of the craziness delightfully come to life on Earl Swift's carefully crafted Auto Biography pages. It comes alive as an Auto Biography for one thing because for a lot of it, Mr. Swift is right there and involved. He's a part of the story. The FBI, zoning officials, prosecutors, dancers, inspectors, wives, girlfriends, fast and loose bankers, employees, the author, buyers and sellers, bidders and tire kickers, everybody gets in on the act. By the end of the book, I am sad that there are no more pages.

Drivers grow to love and trust their cars. It is an intimate relationship. The car becomes a sanctuary…. a place of hopes, dreams and beliefs. Yes, when traded or sold, they're gone. But not forgotten. There's a new one that is even better. And the old one sometimes gets a place in history to be cherished and preserved like fine art.  But this book is not so much about that. It's about people. That's why it succeeds so well.

Earl Swift, Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream, Harper Collins, 2014, 381 pages. On order at the public library, available at New Dominion Bookshop, and Amazon.

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