Cars From the Canon: Kerouac, Heller, O’Connor
Great modern writers wielding automotive imagery.
For thousands of years, it was the ship. Ships brought men to the Troad and Charles Marlow through the Congo. Ships bore whaling folly and marooned Lemuel Gulliver. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, there was the automobile.
The advent of cars gave writers a new tool, this great powerful thing for metaphors and rhetoric and setting. A symbol of strength and beauty, mobility and stagnation, wealth and poverty, hope and despair; a machine that warps time and kills en masse. The best writers wielded automotive imagery with a sense of purpose.
So here we pay homage to those authors, and the vehicles that inspired them, by excerpting short passages from the modern canon. Maybe it’s a description of a car, a humorous observation, or some wonderful dialogue on the highway. Maybe it’s an allegory. Maybe it’s uncategorizable. Either way, the choice to include an automobile in the story was intentional. And we should celebrate that.
From On the Road by Jack Kerouac:
New Orleans! It burned in our brains. From the dirty snows of “frosty fagtown New York,” as Dean called it, all the way to the greeneries and river smells of New Orleans at the washed-out bottom of America; then west. Ed was in the back seat; Marylou and Dean and I sat in the front and had the warmest talk ever about the goodness and joy of life. “Now, dammit, look here, all of you, we must admit that everything is fine and there’s no need in the world to worry, in fact we should realize what it would mean to us to UNDERSTAND that we’re not REALLY worried about ANYTHING. Am I right?” We all agreed. “Here we go, we’re all together … what did we do in New York? Let’s forgive.” We all had our spats back there. “That’s behind us, merely by miles and inclinations. Now we’re heading down to New Orleans to dig Old Bull Lee and ain’t that going to be kicks and listen will you to this old tenorman blow his top”—he shot up the radio volume till the car shuddered—“and listen to him till the story and put down the true relaxation and knowledge.”
We all jumped to the music and agreed. The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove. Dean hunched his muscular neck, T-shirted in the winter night, and blasted the car along. He insisted I drive through Baltimore for traffic practice; that was all right; except he and Marylou insisted on steering while they kissed and fooled around. It was crazy; the radio was on full blast. Dean beat drums on the dashboard till a great sag developed in it; I did too. The poor Hudson—the slow boat to China—was receiving her beating.
From Catch 22 by Joseph Heller:
Even though Chief White Halfoat kept busting Colonel Moodus in the nose for General Dreedle's benefit, he was still outside the pale. Also outside the pale was Major Major, the squadron commander, who had found that out the same time he found out that he was squadron commander from Colonel Cathcart, who came blasting into the squadron in his hopped-up jeep the day after Major Duluth was killed over Perugia. Colonel Cathcart slammed to a screeching stop inches short of the railroad ditch separating the nose of his jeep from the lopsided basketball court on the other side, from which Major Major was eventually driven by the kicks and shoves and stones and punches of the men who had almost become his friends.
‘You're the new squadron commander,’ Colonel Cathcart had bellowed across the ditch at him. ‘But don't think it means anything, because it doesn't. All it means is that you're the new squadron commander.’
And Colonel Cathcart had roared away as abruptly as he'd come, whipping the jeep around with a vicious spinning of wheels that sent a spray of fine grit blowing into Major Major's face. Major Major was immobilized by the news. He stood speechless, lanky and gawking, with a scuffed basketball in his long hands as the seeds of rancor sown so swiftly by Colonel Cathcart took root in the soldiers around him who had been playing basketball with him and who had let him come as close to making friends with them as anyone had ever let him come before. The whites of his moony eyes grew large and misty as his mouth struggled yearningly and lost against the familiar, impregnable loneliness drifting in around him again like suffocating fog.
Like all the other officers at Group Headquarters except Major Danby, Colonel Cathcart was infused with the democratic spirit: he believed that all men were created equal, and he therefore spurned all men outside Group Headquarters with equal fervor. Nevertheless, he believed in his men. As he told them frequently in the briefing room, he believed they were at least ten missions better than any other outfit and felt that any who did not share this confidence he had placed in them could get the hell out. The only way they could get the hell out, though, as Yossarian learned when he flew to visit ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, was by flying the extra ten missions.
From Blood Wise by Flannery O’Connor:
By ten o’clock he had canvassed all the better lots and was nearing the railroad yards. Even there, the lots were full of cars that cost more than fifty dollars. Finally he came to one between two deserted warehouses. A sign over the entrance said: SLADE’S FOR THE LATEST.
There was a gravel road going down the middle of the lot and over to one side near the front, a tin shack with the word, OFFICE, painted on the door. The rest of the lot was full of old cars and broken machinery. A white boy was sitting on a gasoline can in front of the office. He had the look of being there to keep people out. He wore a black raincoat and his face was partly hidden under a leather cap. There was a cigarette hanging out of one corner of his mouth and the ash on it was about an inch long.
Haze started off toward the back of the lot where he saw a particular car. “Hey!” the boy yelled. “You don't just walk in here like that. Ill show you what I got to show,” but Haze didn't pay any attention to him. He went on to-ward the back of the lot where he saw the car. The boy came huffing behind him, cursing. The car he saw was on the last row of cars. It was a high rat-colored machine with large thin wheels and bulging headlights. When he got up to it, he saw that one door was tied on with a rope and that it had an oval window in the back. This was the car he was going to buy.
"Lemme see Slade," he said.
"What you want to see him for?" the boy asked in a testy voice. He had a wide mouth and when he talked he used one side only of it.
"I want to see him about this car," Haze said.
"I'm him," the boy said. His face under the cap was like a thin picked eagle's. He sat down on the running board of a car across the gravel road and kept on cursing.
Haze walked around the car. Then he looked through the window at the inside of it. Inside it was a dull greenish dust-color. The back seat was missing but it had a two-by-four stretched across the seat frame to sit on. There were dark green fringed window shades on the two side-back windows. He looked through the two front windows and he saw the boy sitting on the running board of the car across the gravel road. He had one trouser leg hitched up and he was scratching his ankle that stuck up out of a pulp of yellow sock. He cursed far down in his throat as if he were trying to get up phlegm. The two window glasses made him a yellow color and distorted his shape. Haze moved quickly from the far side of the car and came around in front. "How much is it?"
"Jesus on the cross," the boy said, "Christ nailed."
"How much is it?" Haze growled, paling a little.
"How much do you think it's worth?" the boy said. "Give us a estimit."
"It ain't worth what it would take to cart it off. I wouldn't have it."
The boy gave all his attention to his ankle where there was a scab. Haze looked up and saw a man coming from between two cars over on the boy's side. As he came closer, he saw that the man looked exactly like the boy except that he was two heads taller and he had on a sweat-stained brown felt hat. He was coming up behind the boy, between a row of cars. When he got just behind him, he stopped and waited a second. Then he said in a sort of controlled roar, "Get your butt off that running board!"
The boy snarled and disappeared, scrambling between two cars.
The man stood looking at Haze. "What you want?" he asked.
"This car here," Haze said.
"Seventy-fi' dollars," the man said.
On either side of the lot there were two old buildings, reddish with black empty windows, and behind there was another without any windows. "I'm obliged," Haze said, and he started back toward the office.
When he got to the entrance, he glanced back and saw the man about four feet behind him. "We might argue it some," he said.
Haze followed him back to where the car was.
"You won't find a car like that ever' day," the man said. He sat down on the running board that the boy had been sitting on. Haze didn't see the boy but he was there, sitting up on the hood of a car two cars over. He was sitting huddled up as if he were freezing but his face had a sour composed look. "All new tires," the man said.
"They were new when it was built," Haze said.
"They was better cars built a few years ago," the man said. "They don't make no more good cars."