“Problem: Hauling horseshit for the garden one barrelful at a time is a depressingly inefficient system. Solution: Build a truck this summer. The notion is powerful. Add some clear good sense to our grab-bag gardening methods, yes, but that’s only the start of it. Think of all the other things we could do with it. Oh, my, yes: a full-time working truck. All of a sudden I can’t invent problems fast enough to keep up with the solutions such a truck would represent.
Besides, there’s the building of it, first.”
So begins John Jerome’s 1977 masterpiece, Truck: On Rebuilding a Worn-Out Pickup and Other Post-Technological Adventures. I’m willing to bet the original title was just the one word – “post-technological” smacks of a 1990’s editor trying to make the book look current. The funny thing is, the book is current – it’s every bit as current now as when it was written, maybe more so.
The plot is simple. John Jerome, New England writer and rural-dweller by choice, decides to buy an old beat-up truck and rebuild it. He finds a truck that basically doesn’t move anymore, a formerly retired 1950 Dodge pickup, and hauls it to his barn. And he spends a winter in the barn, taking the truck apart piece by piece and reassembling it.
As the book jacket proclaims, “it’s more than a mechanic’s memoir: it is a meditation on machines, metaphysics, and the moral universe.” No kidding – the description sounds grandiose, but it suits the book. Jerome is curmudgeonly in the best New England intellectual tradition, but he’s also astonishingly down to earth. Heck, he has to be; the whole book is about dismantling a truck.
If you don’t know much about auto mechanics, never fear, you’ll learn. His drawings of brake assemblies, pistons, and connecting rods almost managed to make engines intelligible to me. (Almost, but not quite. On my own car, I still can’t tell a camshaft from a gasket. That’s not his fault, though.)
What’s really neat about this book is how the philosophy comes directly out of the truck tales. I’m even reluctant to call it philosophy because that’s an academic-sounding word, and academics are not this book’s style. If “wisdom” weren’t such a worn-out word, I’d use it instead.
After a few months of hard work, including a near-disaster when Jerome is hasty with a jack and nearly kills himself with the machine he’s working on, he takes a few moments to reflect. “I thought I started rebuilding this truck because I needed a truck,” he begins.
“Then I thought I was doing it to thumb my nose at the excesses of the modern motor vehicle. And then I thought – notice how the rationales become gaudier as I get further from an old truck sitting in the driveway and deeper into a barn full of junk parts – that my truck-building was a political act in revolt against the technocracy.”
Rebuilding this junker of a vehicle becomes an extended meditation on technology and what those in the technology biz like to call “encapsulation.”
Encapsulation is the name for how our technology becomes less and less comprehensible as it proliferates. Early automobile manuals explained to auto owners how to take their cars apart and put them back together again; these days, especially if you have an automatic transmission or gadgets like power windows, you have to find a specialist to fix anything that breaks. Technology’s becoming more opaque. If your PC gives you a screen of meaningless code, if your Macintosh gives you a “sad mac” face, could you unbolt it, fiddle with it, and bolt it back together, fixed? I didn’t think so. That’s no reflection on you, but rather on a culture (ours) in which “black box” technology is taken for granted.
These are the kinds of things Jerome thinks about, while unscrewing bolts caked on by years of motor oil.
He also writes beautifully.
“The scene is the dingy floor of what used to be the milking stalls of the barn, on a winter night. Cheery fire in the woodstove. Despite the way I have festooned the place with lights, I work in a murky glow, relying mostly in a rubber-covered sixty-watt droplight that I can hang inches above the work in question. The engine block rests on 4 x 4s on the floor, where I can strong-arm it to any useful position (until it gains too much weight, as I add pieces). A pile of clean rags, a squirt can of oil, rolls of paper towels for wiping parts, nearby boxes and cans of small parts, gaskets, gasket sealer.”
Almost makes me want to go buy an old truck myself.
I’ve read other books by Jerome since I first found this one. He writes well about a variety of things. I’m fond of Stone Work, for instance, which chronicles the change of seasons and the nature of work (be it physical or mental) in his New England writer’s life. (Then again, I’m a New England writer myself, or try to be, and his book basically glorifies my chosen paradigm. That might explain the affinity.) But Truck remains my favorite.
Truck is rough around the edges. Jerome doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is pretty clear from page 1. What keeps this attitude from being arrogant is that he himself can be a fool, and he admits it, which means he’s as likely to turn his grumpy sarcasm on himself as on anyone else. And he doesn’t sand his opinions down. He rambles about the inner workings of the truck until you feel like you know, maybe, a little too much about this 1950 Dodge.
But there’s something authentic about the account. Despite the book’s roughness, or maybe because of it, you believe that Jerome really did this – that he really spent these months taking something apart and putting it back together again, wanting to be competent, wanting to learn something.
Rebuilding the truck doesn’t unlock the secrets of the universe, but Jerome has a thought-provoking and entertaining journey along the way. Pick up the book and go with him: it’s worth it. And even if you learn more than you intended to, hey, it’s got to be better than rebuilding an old truck yourself.
Just ask Jerome.