Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Nightmare Car

"Little by little, we evolved the idea of getting a car. The only way to see America is by automobile--that's what everybody says. It's not true, of course, but it sounds wonderful."
--- Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, p. 14 [1]

Henry Miller and Abe Rattner drove across America in 1940-41. The end result for Miller was The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Henry and Abe (sometimes) made most of the trek in a used 1932 Buick. Henry had taken only six driving lessons and knew nothing about car mechanics.
THE CAR
When a $500 publisher's advance came to Miller in August 1940, Henry and Abe went car shopping. Neither of them knew much about automobiles, so they relied upon the opinion of the car salesman who assured them that a 1932 Buick sedan was a "good, reliable vehicle" [1, p.14] "I had never owned a car, didn't know how to drive one even. I wish now we had chosen a canoe instead" [1, p.14]. This was the first car they looked at; it was good enough for them. Henry paid $100 from the advance.

A 1932 Buick sedan (image from the GM Photo Store)
DRIVING LESSONS - 1927
Henry actually took his first driving lesson around 1927. Sid "Reb" Essen--a corner store owner in Brooklyn--insisted that Henry learn how to drive his car, so that he could borrow it to drive June out to the country. The anecdote is described in Nexus, pages 199, 207-208, and 225-226. [2] When Henry tells June that Reb says he can teach him to drive in three lessons, she replies: "Don't do it, Val. You're not meant to drive a car."

One Saturday, Reb took Henry out for his first lesson. It was a big eight-cylindered, four-door Buick sedan. At first Henry was just shown what it felt like behind the wheel; where the brakes and gas pedal were, how to operate the gears. In a vacant lot, Henry then learned the basics of turning, parking and backing up. With Reb's blessings, Henry was given the green light to take June for a spin. Henry was nervous about backing up: "The damned things was too huge, too lumbering; it had too much power." [2, p.225]. He had to stop every few miles in order to keep himself calm. After a nightmarish twenty-mile drive, which left Henry a sweating, nervous wreck, he vowed never to drive again. On his way back, he had a minor fender-bender with a jalopy. When the mechanical beast was finally parked, Miller was relieved to be back on his own two feet.

DRIVING LESSONS - 1940
Both Rattner and Miller were novice drivers, learning what they could in six lessons: "A little nervous, I must confess, because we had only had about a half dozen lessons in driving at the Automobile School. I knew how to steer, how to shift gears, how to apply the brake--what more was necessary?" [1, p.15] He hadn't practiced night driving, which he regretted later [1, p. 234]. Apparently, Kenneth Patchen also provided Miller with some lessons [3, p. 377]. Miller and Rattner set off on their adventure on October 24, 1940. Henry was the first at the wheel. He was shaken up after driving through the Holland Tunnel, so Abe took over after just an hour.

AUTOMOTIVE PASSACAGLIA
For the first half of Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the car itself is not much of a character. It's referenced in very minor, practical ways. On page 33, there's an exception, but it's not about his car. While stopping in Ohio, Miller is struck by the many cars parked outside of mills and factories: "The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one." He goes to imagine that the "toiling masses" in other countries of the world see the shiny American car as a symbol of "Paradise," but "they don't see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker."

In February 1941, Henry had to leave the car parked in Natchez, Mississippi in order to fly into New York, to try to see his father before he died (he missed him by two hours). The car was not picked up again for over a month.

In the second half of the book, Henry is driving alone. Abe is no longer with him. The car is mentioned more often at this point, even receiving its own chapter called "Automotive Passacaglia." In this chapter, Henry waits as his car is being fixed at a service station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Henry enjoys watching the mechanics try to discover the source of his car's tendancy to overheat, as if he were watching surgeons at work. Henry sees the engine for the first time: "It was rather beautiful, in a mechanical way. Reminded me of a steam calliope playing Chopin in a tub of grease" [1, p. 210]. A few things are repaired, but Henry is warned about the hazards of the radiator boiling over in the heat of the American South.

THIS NIGHTMARE IS NOT AIR-CONDITIONED
Henry swelterd as he drove his car from the Grand Canyon to Burbank. With an eye on the temperature gauge, Henry was constantly pulling over and waiting for his car to cool down; it overheated every 20-30 miles. He drove down a steep road at night [1, p.234] and was pulled over by a cop for having a light out [1, p.235-6]. After a stay-over in Hollywood, Miller drove the car back to New York in October 1941. He had driven 25,000 miles.

I have no idea what happened to that car. If only it still existed, maybe kept permenantly on display at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, what a wonderful experience it would be sit behind that wheel. My guess is that the 1932 Buick is long gone.
_______________________

Sources:
[1] The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, by Henry Miller (New Direction Paperback NDP302).
[2] Nexus, by Henry Miller (Grove Press paperback).
[3] Always Merry And Bright, by Jay Martin (Penguin Books, 1980)

21 Comments:

Anonymous Eric said...

Just reread The Air-Conditioned Nightmare a few weeks ago - I found many of the ideas in it contradictory to his other books. Fascinating... Was it changing foot transport for that car that changed it all for him?

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