Behold the magisterial front end of the 1954 Buick: the toothy chrome grill, the sharply tipped mammiferous bulbs of the “Dagmar” bumper, the “bombsight” hood ornament, the tear-drop headlights, all of it wrapped in luscious lipstick-red sheet metal. This rolling work of art serves as proof, if any were still needed, that they don’t make cars like they used to. It has also served as the muse for all the fiction I have written, providing a way for me to travel, in comfort and at speed, into my chosen theme: the hollow promises of the American Dream in the years following the Second World War.
Many people under the age of 40 have trouble believing it, but there was a 30-year period, from roughly the mid-1940’s until the mid-1970’s, when the United States of America truly had it going on. The economy was robust, the middle class was thriving, cars were big and fast and flashy and fun, and infectious pop music kept pouring out of Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Motown, and countless points in between.
It didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t possibly last. The buzz kill ’70s brought Arab oil embargoes, military defeat in Vietnam, the trauma of Watergate, and the simultaneous decline of Detroit and rise of the Japanese auto industry. And then, to seal the deal, along came disco, followed by Ronald Reagan and the long, systematic dismantling of the American middle class.
Those of us who lived through the so-called golden years of the so-called American Century tend to edit out certain inconvenient subtexts. There was the ever-present dread of nuclear annihilation; and if you happened to be a person of color, female, poor, or gay, there was (and still is) a good chance you were not enjoying a full share of the bounty. America’s swagger, it turns out, was built on flimsy hubris, a blinkered parochialism, and major inequalities. Oh, and cheap oil.
Yet there is no denying that something magical happened in America in the three decades after the Second World War, and it’s not surprising that writers continue to mine those years not only for their exuberant hardware, but also as a measure of just how much the world has changed. Almost always, that’s a way of saying just how much we’ve lost.
Timothy Walsh is the latest writer to revisit those expansive, metaphor-rich boom years. His third book of poetry is called When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive, an automotive metaphor that establishes Walsh’s attachment to a time before today’s de-sexed, front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient hybrid cars, which is to say a time before our globalized economy and its computers and ruthless efficiency and digitized everything. The book’s subtitle is New Jersey Poems, and while there is a strong sense of place — the Jersey suburbs and shore, the looming allure of nearby New York City, that “oversize Oz” — the subtitle could also have been Rust Belt Poems, for these poems will resonate with anyone who lived in America’s industrial cities at their peaks, places like Newark and Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit, places that suffered horrifically when America shed its rear-wheel drive past and American industry moved overseas, taking a way of life with it.
Walsh — a white, Catholic, middle-class baby boomer — beautifully captures what it was like to come of age in that vanished world. It was a world of ice cream trucks, Halloween pranks, jobs delivering newspapers, and pumping gas, eventually moving on to the adolescent world of girls and garage bands, motorcycles and muscle cars. This sounds more Mayberry than it reads on the page. Walsh deftly renders a world on the cusp — it’s both palpable and in the process of vanishing. He captures what Elizabeth Spencer captured in her 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza — “America’s midcentury moment of confidence,” in the words of Michael Gorra, “the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.” A sense of the imminent, inevitable loss of this confidence is at the core of these poems, and it comes through most viscerally when people are in cars. Here’s a memory of riding in a Buick Wildcat:
What I remember most were those butterfly windows,
those hinged triangles of glass that angle outward
so you could ride with the windows wide open
and not get blasted by road wind.
Butterfly windows – gone the way of telephone booths,
transistor radios, and fountain pens.
Now we drive, hermetically sealed in sleek,
engines silent as stealth,
traveling through the world like something preserved
in glass jars,
shutting out the sounds and smells of summer –
the drone of cicadas and lawnmowers,
the musk of new-mown grass.
I also hear echoes of Philip Levine, the great poet of my hometown, Detroit, who captured the drudgery, terror, and occasional beauty of factory work in such books as Not This Pig and What Work Is. Here is Walsh’s description of working at a gas station:
When the big tanker trucks rumbled in,
dropped their load of gas into the underground tanks,
someone had to climb up with a flashlight
to check that the truck was actually empty.
Peering into the truck’s gaping belly, gasoline vapors
swirling, a voluptuous fog,
the polished steel innards gleaming like a gun-metal dawn,
it never didn’t occur to you that one spark –
one errant static discharge –
and you were history – blown to smithereens,
your molecules and atoms salting the woods,
raining down on the river.
There is humor here, too, including a poem called “Slingshot in the Confessional,” which goes a long way toward explaining why Catholics tend to be among the most imaginative and inveterate sinners:
Kneeling in the dark confessional, speaking through the screen,
the dark shadow-shape of the priest lurking,
you’d recite your litany of minor disobediences, curse words,
lies, and fights,
the squirt gun or slingshot in your pocket
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
the priest would conclude,
sending you forth into the world cleansed and refreshed,
ready to embark on another round of transgressions.
In his memoir called Downtown, Pete Hamill gives voice to a nostalgia much like Walsh’s, but filtered through the eyes of immigrants, including his Irish-born parents. Hamill defines this nostalgia as “an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.” Hamill’s parents lost the world of the Old Country; Walsh and his post-war New Jersey clan lost an equally vibrant world. Hamill writes:
Every immigrant knew what Africans had learned in the age of
slavery: that there was a world that was once there in the most
intimate way and was now gone. Part of the past. Beyond retrieval.
On the deepest level, it didn’t matter whether you had that past taken
from you, as had happened to the Africans, of whether you had
decided personally to leave it behind. At a certain hour of the night,
the vanished past could be vividly alive.
When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive is that certain hour of the night. It understands that loss is imminent and inevitable, and that the things we have lost are beyond retrieval. That’s what makes it so painful, and so lovely.
Four years ago I wrote an essay here about a smallish southern city where I used to write for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction at night. It was, and is, a pleasant place for a writer to live and work, a city with a rich literary tradition but none of the self-importance of Iowa City or Brooklyn, a place content to operate under the radar and leave its writers in peace. Randall Jarrell, who taught at the state university’s local campus for many years, referred to the place as “Sleeping Beauty.” In a letter to his friend Robert Lowell, Jarrell wrote, “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.”
I mentioned many local writers in that essay about Greensboro, NC, from native son O. Henry right up to the biggest contemporary brand name, Orson Scott Card. Among those many writers was Lee Zacharias, who has just come out with a collection of essays, her first, called The Only Sounds We Make.
Zacharias, who had previously published a collection of short stories and two novels, brings a pair of vital skills to the enterprise of essay writing: she notices, and she remembers. These skills are invaluable to any writer, but especially so to the creator of the kind of deeply personal essays Zacharias has produced in this collection. When noticing and remembering are fused, as they are here, they can breathe life into anything, from the most intimate moments to the most cosmic subjects – the nature of light, writers’ workplaces, a father’s suicide, the visible and invisible lessons of the Grand Canyon, even the surprising allure of buzzards.
One of the most poignant passages in the book comes midway through an essay called “Morning Light,” which is ostensibly about photography. Making photographs, as Zacharias discovers, requires more than an understanding of f-stops and depth of field. “To make a photograph,” she writes, “you must learn how to read light. You must develop a feel for its chemistry, its texture and color; its purity must become palpable to you. But to read light is to experience ephemerality, to know your own mortality, the fleeting nature of all things.” This effortless veering from the practical to the philosophical continues with this explanation of Zacharias’s motives for taking up photography:
I learned to read light because there was a time when I needed to be without language, when I needed to travel back to that place where nothing is named and we dream in pure light and color. When I failed to publish my second novel, I believed that words had failed me, and I didn’t want to write another just because I was expected to. If I was to write again, it would be because I needed words, not because I was a writer.
She stopped writing for two years, then wrote another novel, which also failed to sell. “How, without whining, is one to describe the way her world dims?” she asks. “It’s as if she’s been a member of a club; then one day she tries the clubhouse door to find the lock has been changed.” She continues:
And so I taught myself to speak another tongue. For a decade marked by the faltering of my career, my father’s suicide, my son’s troubled adolescence, the decline of our remaining parents, and the sudden irreversibility of aging, I made photographs.
Zacharias, who taught in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro for many years and edited The Greensboro Review literary journal, eventually came back to writing. But 32 years would pass between the publication of her second book and her third, a novel called At Random. Now, a mere year later, comes The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias tells me she has finished another novel and is at work on a new one set in western Michigan during the Depression. It appears she has relocated the key to the clubhouse door.
Zacharias’s writing about her childhood and her difficult parents is some of her best. In the essay “Mud Pies” she tells about her early years on the South Side of Chicago and her family’s eventual flight to a raw new suburban development in Hammond, Indiana. Zacharias’s writing is supple but never flashy, and she is typically clear-eyed about how this massive social convulsion touched her life: “I would not pretend that I actively miss Chicago lest I be accused of sentimentality – I was not yet five years old when I left – yet I do feel nostalgia, the kind Pete Hamill speaks of in his book about Lower Manhattan, Downtown. Sentimentality is about lies, he says, nostalgia about ‘real things gone,’ not so much about what we remember, but itself ‘an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.’ The body cannot remember a lie.” The essay ends on this grace note:
I used to believe that my nostalgia was so intense because I felt I had lost something I never possessed. But the truth is that we do not possess our lives. As true exiles know, we stand too easily to lose them, and in the end we are all just passing through. It is what we remember of the journey that we possess. I own a little girl sitting on a curb in Chicago in the barefoot sandals her mother always made her wear with socks, and in the curious stillness of that moment when she looks up from her mud pie and cocks her head in wait, I know that what she is waiting for is something to remember.
Zacharias’s parents, who eventually divorced, were a couple of tough customers. Her mother was “manipulative,” “overbearing,” and “exhausting,” and yet “no mother’s love could have been more unconditional.” Her father was a misogynist, a tightwad with no close friends who, to top it off, was ashamed of his daughter’s vocation. “He was ashamed not just of the writing itself but of the fact that I wrote,” Zacharias says. “He didn’t see the point. He kept a log of his gas mileage, but he never kept a journal…He had beautiful handwriting, but no use for words.” Hard to believe that such a couple’s daughter would become an accomplished writer, but Zacharias’s life is a reminder that there is no template, no blueprint for making writers. They come from anywhere and nowhere and everywhere in between. After her father fired a .357-caliber bullet from a Bulldog revolver into his own head, Zacharias was able to write words that seem nearly heroic, yet she makes them sound simple, even humble, possibly inevitable: “My father was who he was. He died how he died. But because he was my father I loved him.”
There is levity in these pages, too, most notably on the day of Zacharias’s second wedding, when she and the groom stood in their living room with a minister who was an old friend. The only witnesses were their dogs, one of whom spent the ceremony vigorously humping the minister’s leg. The minister kept shaking his leg, trying to soldier on. “His voice quavered with the effort,” the bride reports, “and every word he read sounded like a sob.”
The dozen essays in this collection appeared in a variety of journals, including Antaeus, Southern Quarterly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Humanities Review. My favorite, “Buzzards,” was reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. It is an astonishment, with glints of etymology, zoology, mythology, photography, family dynamics, and the various roles buzzards have played in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Federico Garcia Lorca, Darwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Bible. Despite her wide reading on these mysterious unloved birds, Zacharias fails to mention the timeless opening of Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge, so I’ll quote it here:
You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.
Zacharias’s sin of omission is forgiven because she knows all about the ancient patterns. And because she can write lines like these: “What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine.” And these: “I do not dream of vultures. I have never dreamed of flying, though as a child, lying in the dark, awake, voiceless, listening to my parents fight, I used to dream of escape. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to be a writer.”
Perhaps. Probably. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lee Zacharias is back inside the clubhouse. She has published a splendid book of essays and she has more books in her. And that’s very good news for us all.