(Double) Weekly Roundup: The Desire Of The Woman Edition

And they say that writing doesn’t pay: Kristen Roupenian received $1.2 million dollars as an advance for her FIRST EVER BOOK, You Know You Want this after her story “Cat Person” went, as they say, viral. The book is, apparently, a bit of a hash and it’s not selling terribly well. You can read a rather savage review by the infamous “Delicious Tacos” here; as with Clive James’ infamous Princess Daisy evisceration, the criticism is significantly more accomplished than the source material. I could attempt a review of my own, but it would be stymied both by the excellence of Tacos’ piece and the minor, but in this case relevant, fact that I have not read the book.

Which won’t stop me from talking about “Cat Person” a bit, because I have read it and because it’s free for all of you to read. The story is trash, little better than the vampires-and-billionaires vomit you see being eagerly scarfed-up by every middle-aged woman beneath every rental umbrella on every beach during every summer, and bearing the scars of a thousand table readings at a dozen writers’ workshops — yet, as Clive James reminds us, “It takes bad art to teach us how good art gets done.” Therefore, let me flap this bug with gilded wings, &c., because there is a fascinating, and important, lesson buried right in the fetid guts of the thing.

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Weekly Roundup: Down, But Not Out, In Florida Edition

It wasn’t until after I ran down from the starting hill and down to the track’s end that I realized my son had been injured. I carried his twisted bike off the track as he stood on wobbling legs and stumbled into the darkness past fence before sitting down. Then I sat down next to him and observed the way he shielded his face with his hands, helmet still on.

“Come on, let’s stand up and walk over to the trophies,” I said, mistaking his behavior for disappointment or stubbornness.

“I can’t,” he replied, “I want to, but my head hurts so much.”

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(Last) Weekly Roundup: The Gospel Accord-ing To Jack Edition

Has it really been five years since I bought my Accord Coupe? In truth, it’s been five years and a few days. In theory, the last payment was due on the first of March. I made it twenty days early and now I have the title. This is the first time I’ve paid off a car loan since I finished my Boxster in 2010; everything since then was lease-returned, sold early, traded-in, or bent in half.

Auto loans, much like pornographic images, are often loudly derided by their most thoroughly-addicted users. I’ve paid cash for a fair number of cars and bikes over the years but I never felt like braying about it. Where and when it was appropriate, I’ve never hesitated to borrow money for a car. It’s some of the cheapest funding you can get; I think my MKT loan is five percent, which would have been lousy three years ago but seems good now.

Anyway, the Accord is now paid off. It’s now entirely my car. Every once in a while, someone asks about buying it. I’m one of those everything’s-for-sale types so here is the Riverside Green “deal”: The car has 71,000 miles, one panel dent measuring 2 x 3 inches, fresh brakes all the way around, and a back bumper that could use a re-spray. I installed a Class 1 trailer hitch for a bike rack. $16,999 takes it home, FOB Powell, Ohio. The lucky buyer gets the OEM wheels with worn-out Primacy OEM tires, one set of O.Z. Omnias mounting one-third worn Cooper “performance” tires, and one set of Tire Rack special wheels mounting Blizzak winter tires.

You could do a lot worse for the money; this is a fast, capable, and charming car. I don’t expect anyone to buy it, which would suit me just fine.

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(Last) Weekly Roundup: A Linc To The Past Edition

They did it when I wasn’t looking, when my back was either turned in entirely feigned disinterest or bent to the work of surviving in the so-called gig economy: they changed what it meant to be rich. I don’t mean the numbers, although it is sobering to think that any one of the modern Illuminati can, and often do, spend in a day what a surgeon or senior attorney could make in a lifetime. I’m talking about the actual existence of the rich, the way they live.

My grandfather, the first John Baruth, was rich. Not by today’s standards, mind you. His home in Clearwater was modestly sized and I am certain he went to his grave without ever having flown private. Rather, he was rich in the way that a small-town surgeon or mid-city attorney used to be rich. He retired in his fifties, played tennis, wore and ate whatever suited him. They knew his name at his club and at his church. He was treated with universal respect. Having worked hard for much of his life, he was generous, serene, and cheerful in wealth.

Today’s rich people exhibit little of that serenity or cheerfulness. They sullenly eschew the sartorial and behavorial trappings of traditional American wealth, such as the fine dresses and elegant disposition, for an aesthetic best described as “about to go running in mildly bad weather.” The goal is to mimic the appearance of perpetual exercise, all the better to accompany the Bezos-esque bobblehead-and-pencil-neck marathoner’s build that one apparently cannot avoid picking up somewhere between open-plan-office and C-suite. The primary social message is: I am successful enough to spend my entire life in some sort of aerobic activity. They snipe at the “uniform” of three-piece Brooks Brothers suit even as they all don completely identical light-blue psuedo-exercise vests and fleeces. I suspect, but cannot confirm, that they view the replacement of American tradecraft clothing with sweatshop polyester garbage as a feature, not a bug.

And then, of course, we have their cars.

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Weekly Roundup: It’s Not A Story The GTI Jedi Would Have Told You Edition

I will admit to being fascinated by vanity plates. I’ve had a few, all of them bad. In fact, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a genuinely witty one, on my car or others. There is something intrinsically pathetic about wanting people to be impressed or enlightened by your plate. With that said, I also admire the spirit of paying a couple extra bucks to avoid wearing what amounts to a state identification number on your vehicle.

Still. The worst plates are the ones which simply restate the badge on the car, and I’ve been guilty (“E46 3LTR”, “DISCO”) a few times. My old mentor in the pimp game, the Big Dog, was infamous for doing this (“TDI Q7”). He would also make bad puns in steel — “AUDIOS” comes to mind. The worst one he ever had was when he picked up two Range Rover 4.6 Vitesses, one in red and the other in eye-searing yellow. The plate: “TWEETY”.

After seeing the above at a Michigan gas station, however, I’m thinking that “TWEETY” wasn’t that bad.

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Weekly Roundup: It Was All Building Toward Something Edition

Almost eight years ago, I took a weekend gig as music director for a church band in Bellefontaine, Ohio. The rhythm guitarist was a young fellow who had graduated from high school the year before and was drifting unsteadily between minimum-wage jobs in the burned-out old manufacturing town thirty miles northwest of the church. We became fast friends and even after I left the church he would occasionally make the long drive down to play some music and discuss his personal struggles: dying grandparents, lack of health care, general loneliness. The biggest problem he had was that he didn’t know where his life was going. Every time he’d catch on at a factory job, the shift would close or the plant would move. He was in line for a gig at Honda but they had a two year waiting period just to get temp contractor work on the line. In 2012 he enlisted in the Army but that, too, had an eighteen-month waiting period; the economy was so bad here that they had more Ohio kids willing to lose their legs to an IED than they could accommodate in Basic Training.

At the time, I remember telling him something that Randal says in Clerks 2: “Sooner or later, I’ll do something with myself and make my mark. But until then, whatever I do is not a waste of time, it’s all building toward something.” He didn’t really believe me, and I can’t blame him. Eventually, the Army made room for him — but he hated the Army. So when his grandfather died he took compassionate discharge and came home to work at a plastic fork factory. In 2016, his number came up at Honda, and I figured he would finish his life the way a lot of people from that area do: by working for 25 years on the line then buying a $50,000 home in rural Ohio in which to die.

Turns out I was wrong. One of the friends he’d made at the fork factory had a relative who wanted to expand his 18-wheeler roadside service business. So my pal quit his job and bought a 1993-vintage FedEx truck filled with secondhand service tools. That was in November. Now he has an 1800-square-foot shop and two employees, with a third starting next week. He pays himself $15 an hour and puts the rest into the business or into buying property. During the polar vortex they were making between $5k and $7k a day on service calls. He bought his grandfather’s home from the bank and is remodeling it. He also has a Fifties-era Chevy truck that is putting 410 horsepower down at the rear wheels. Most importantly, he’s in the process of signing a service contract with the largest intra-state carrier to use Route 70 in Ohio. (Many of the big companies just run the turnpike up north.)

He thinks he can sustain a $3k daily billing rate. Which means that my plastic-fork-factory friend now has a million-dollar business, well before turning thirty. The contacts he made, the random mechanical tasks he learned when he was bored, the time he spent noodling around on an Eclipse or a ’68 Chevy or his own Saturn SL2: it was all building toward something. All that’s left is to work hard and do the best he can. I believe he will be successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Which reminds me. I have a new job.

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Weekly Roundup: Fourth Place Is the First Winner Edition

I don’t recall when and where I read it, but I remember the impact this phrase had on me at the time: Children are powerless. They are easily hurt, easily damaged, easily broken. Consider, if you will, the USABMX Bluegrass National of this past weekend. It was a purpose-built track in a lovely facility… but there was too much moisture in the dirt, courtesy of an accident during storage and transportation. A layer of muddy sand extruded itself from the track surface. And my sixty-two-pound child with his single-digit body fat and ethereal proportions, always so fast and so capable on concrete or asphalt or a wooden box jump, was stuck on that surface like a butterfly in a Venus flytrap.

He’d won five races in a row going into the weekend, but against the bigger, stronger Southern children he struggled. Always first or second into the initial corner, he would then simply be dragged to a near halt while the competition chopped along. The track conditions affected everybody — on Day One, we had 21 riders in the 46-50 Expert class, on Day Two, just nine of us returned — but it was hardest on the lightest and smallest racers. After barely making the main event on Saturday and finishing sixth of eight riders, John was simply furious. I told him that we had an option: we could cut his gearing by seven percent. It would give him a chance to climb out of the sandy ruts. But he would have to pedal at least seven percent more — this, on a track that was already a few hundred feet longer than anything he’d ridden in almost a year.

“I think,” he replied, “I am okay to try anything.”

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Weekly Roundup: Light At The End Of The Tunnel Edition

I didn’t go to the Detroit Auto Show this year. I’d wanted to go, as this was the last year for a traditional winter event. The next one will be in the summer of 2020. Will anyone care?

The first Detroit Show I attended would have been in 1995, I think — my co-worker “Rodney” talked me into going. My first wife and I made a habit of attending the Charity Ball some time around the turn of the century — in those years before I had a media credential, the charity event was a nice way to pick up an $800 tax deduction and check out the cars without the crush of the madding crowd.

Detroit was always a chance to meet up with people, put faces to names, make friends, meet girls, and get excited about cars again. In the past few years it’s felt a bit dead. People want to blame the weather, but the weather was always bad. What’s changed? In truth, the lack of excitement at the show probably has a lot to do with the now-universal practice of pre-empting the event itself with embargoed and non-embargoed press materials. There was once a time when the people at the show were genuinely shocked, or at least surprised, to see a new car roll out on stage. When it happens nowadays it’s anti-climactic because everyone’s already read the press release and seen the pictures.

Which is not to say that there was a lack of fascinating news at this year’s show…

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Weekly Roundup: My Sweetest Victory Edition

The first time I saw the man in the wheelchair blasting across an empty lot behind the first-turn infield grandstands at Daytona, his hands firmly grasping an odd sort of single-wheeled scooter that pulled the wheelchair along behind it, his longish black hair in electric-current agitation, my attention was focused on the machinery involved. By the time he crossed my field of vision a second time, doing every bit of twenty miles per hour and correcting each skittish twitch of the chair over the parking-lot gravel with a practiced countersteering motion, I took a closer look, noticed that his legs were missing rather than simply immobilized, and realized: It’s Zanardi. Sure enough, when the chair came to a halt at the base of the grandstand stairs, I recognized him by both face and manner: impassive, confident, comfortable in the skin he still owned.

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Weekly Roundup: Midnight Rider Edition

Long live the terminological buccaneer! You probably didn’t notice at the time, but the middle of the Twentieth Century wasn’t just notable for some real humdinger-style global military conflicts both hot and cold; it was also the site of two pitched battles in the EXCITING WORLD OF LITERARY CRITICISM! I put that part in capital letters so it would seem more dramatic.

The first World War, if you will, was between the “Formalists” and the “New Critics”. The Formalists had ruled the roost for a long time, and they believed that you couldn’t understand a book (or poem, or any other “text”) without understanding the author. If you took a high school English class where you were lectured extensively on Herman Melville’s poverty or Toni Morrison’s infallibility, you were the (unwilling target) of watered-down Formalism. The New Critics, on the other hand, had the CRAY CRAY idea that everything you needed to understand a “text” was inside the text itself. They believed that the purest and most intelligent criticism came from treating the text like a found object, the same way we regard something like the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As an idea, New Criticism was long overdue — and as a way of wedging humanity out of Formalism, it was absolutely necessary. There was just one problem: no text is truly a “found object”. Imagine Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Word being read by someone who doesn’t know what a “flivver” is, or what the line “Ford’s in his flivver” is meant to reference. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that, because it’s happening right now in colleges across America. Our eighteen-year-olds are very skilled at Fortnite and they know the lyrics of Ariana Grande songs the same way people used to know the King James Bible, but they don’t read Robert Browning and they don’t know enough history to identify a “flivver”.

The New Critics would tell you that you can fully understand Brave New World without any of that information. This position was so obviously absurd that it eventually yielded, in a sort of Second World War, to Post-Structuralism, which is obsessed with context. A proper Post-Structuralist reading of Brave New World would require that you know everything that Huxley knew when he wrote the book. This, as you’d imagine, is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible. As a result, there was a long Cold War between the people who could not abide New Criticism or Post-Structuralism. The Cold War was resolved when a milder, more practical version of the Post-Structuralist philosophy was advanced by the eminent critical scholar Northrop Frye in the Sixties. Mr. Frye, who considered himself a “terminological buccaneer”, borrowed and stole liberally from the best aspects of New Criticism and Post-Structuralism to create a workable framework for literary criticism.

Frye shaped the course of “lit-crit” from 1960 to 2005 or so, at which point gender and race theories became all-powerful, effectively terminating our culture’s chances of obtaining any further understanding of literature on any basis that is not directly related to university-grade progressive dogma. Our schools are busy teaching themselves to forget proper criticism, which is why today’s readers are drowning in a tsunami of young-adult trash and third-tier feeling-junkies like Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. We simply don’t know any better, and deliberately so.

Happily for Frye, he did not live to see this stupidity become canoncical. He died in 1991 with his position as the first man of literary criticism utterly secured, believing that he would continue to influence the way thoughtful men read books for decades to come. He may have even influenced you — Frye was often tapped to assemble anthologies of literature and/or criticism for undergraduate education. His influence on me was somewhat more direct. One of Frye’s most devoted students was a fellow named Edward Tomarken, who in turn became my faculty mentor and life-long friend some twenty-six years ago. “Eddie” and Frye maintained a personal correspondence until Frye’s death. I, in turn, continue to meet Eddie once a year or so either in Florida or at his home outside London. Which goes a long way toward explaining why I have a hyper-critical attitude towards automotive journalism; once you’ve learned to thoroughly disassemble a brilliant writer like Alexander Pope or William Makepeace Thackeray, reading the dreck in today’s car magazines is like sticking your hands elbow-deep into a construction-site latrine.

It might also explain why one of my son’s Christmas presents led to the two of us having an uncomfortable conversation about prison snitches.

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