Get a Grip on My Boy Racer Rollbar

When Stephen King delivered his manuscript for Christine to Viking in 1983, surely someone in editorial must have thought he had jumped whatever passes for a shark in the deep recesses of northern Maine. Here we have, not a short story, but an entire novel based on what has to be one of the most moronic tropes of the “fantastic” ever conceived—what if an automobile could come to life?  What if cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, golf carts and such could become sentient?  It’s the kind of “magical thinking” Freud associated with children and psychotics.  But at least children and the psychotic might be excused for really believing the new Prius in the garage wants to kill them.  To think—as a functional adult—that a “living car” is scary, awesome, and/or entertaining in any way is to be an idiot.

And let’s not forget that King—at the absolute height of his cultural power and industry influence—chose Maximum Overdrive (1986) for his one and only turn in the director’s chair.  Maximum Overdrive tells the story of marauding 18-wheeler trucks that come to malevolent life when a strange comet passes by the earth  (because, you know, such shenanigans must be “motivated” or else they wouldn’t make any sense).  Actually, King should probably be praised for taking on this project.  Most authors given the chance to direct would no doubt try to bring their most ponderous and pretentious work to the screen—so King’s commitment to a making an entire film based on little more than a pun colliding truck transmissions and heavy metal amplification demonstrates a sense of humor if nothing else.  Plus it has a wall-to-wall AC/DC soundtrack, which given today’s penchant for the breakneck mixing of up-and-annoying acts from the studio’s ancillary mp3 division, is a fairly remarkable statement of aesthetic purity and industrial clout.

To my knowledge, the “living vehicle” premise has only been successfully realized twice, both times on television.  As much as it pains me to admit it, Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) is probably the best of them all—but of course that’s because we are never asked to believe anything so stupid as the truck being alive.  Much more terrifying is our identification with Dennis Weaver as the target of a blue-collar psycho, a guy who would no doubt squash our guts as well for being car drivin’ creampuffs.  Plus, Duel is a great meditation on the abstract guilt and anxiety that haunts us all.  Who can’t relate to a wide load of repressed fear barreling down the highway of life right on your back bumper? 

The other great “living vehicle” movie is Killdozer (1974), based on a short story that Theodore Sturgeon probably wrote on a dare or while drunk.  What if a giant bulldozer came to life…to kill!  It’s just stupid enough to work because it knows just how stupid it is—as opposed to the current Transformers series that, even as I write this, has invaded downtown Chicago to reuse all the same set-ups as The Dark Knight, not so much to stage a dark allegory of contemporary evil, but to restage Piaget's "Concrete Operational Stage" for the hoardes of pathologically regressed viewers interested in reliving the thrill of their first preschool success in getting all the star, square and circle pegs into the appropriate holes.

 Killdozer, by the way, premiered alongside Bad Ronald and Born Innocent, making the 1974 television season a profound benchmark in the collectively ironicized gray matter of Gen-X.  If you know of the band Killdozer from Madison, Wisconsin—one of the Dairy state’s greatest contributions to ‘80s post-punk anomic sarcasm--congratulations.  Give yourself a couple of more points if you ever owned their first elpee, Intellectuals are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite (a title that truly could only have come out of Madison, Austin, or Berkeley between March and August of 1984).  

There are a few other cars in the “things that talk that shouldn’t” wing of the TV museum (as the Simpsons put it so well a few years back).  Most likely more people have heard of My Mother the Car than have seen it, a sad case of producers going to the I Dream of a Bewitched Mr. Ed and Mrs. Muir well one time too many.  Then there is Knight Rider, but here it was never entirely clear if “Kit” was actually a sentient being or if he was just a really well programmed computer forced to banter with David Hasselhoff—but I suppose that is a question we will all be asking with increasing frequency in the dark Terminator days that lie ahead.   

To recap: talking car stories are for morons.  So imagine my surprise after being tricked into reading a talking car story that is actually pretty good: The Four Day Weekend by George Henry Smith (Belmont 1965).  If you’re wondering how a person can be “tricked” into reading a book, then clearly you are not familiar with how pulp covers worked at mid-century.  As the FTC has no jurisdiction over commercial artwork, pulp publishers have enjoyed a long history of simply lying about what is actually between the covers.  For example, if you will examine this particular cover closely, you will note that it depicts a heroic man, trailed by a slightly less heroic but still very attractive woman, fleeing from some ungodly array of futuristic fighting machines.  X-wing-like fighters strafe them from above.  Another guy appears to be floating in the background, suggesting all of this takes place in the zero-gravity of space or perhaps an exotic far-flung planet.  But The Four Day Weekend is about none of this; instead, it about talking cars that try to take over the world. 

I was particularly duped by the blurb that appears on the top left: “What happens to a man when a woman is the boss—even in the 21st Century?”  This is a wonderfully ambiguous statement, and one that requires us to assume the place of a teenage boy buying this book back in 1965.  Does this statement mean: after 2000 years of bossing men around, what if women are still in control EVEN in the 21st Century?  Or does it mean: what if EVEN in the future masculine techno-utopia of the 21st century, women somehow find a way to take over and become “the boss?”  Either way, it’s a great example of the hilariously unexamined sexism that modern men like to pretend they don’t find funny anymore.  As almost all sci-fi is about dreams of male autonomy, the blurb should probably read: What happens to YOU when teachers, moms, and girlfriends still get to boss guys around even after high school? 

As the story opens, our protagonist, Charles Henry Hyde, is one of only a handful of passengers still riding mass transit in Los Angeles.  This is an old science-fiction trick, of course.  To proceed in the story, we have to imagine and concede a future so distant that L.A. has not only built a working light-rail transit system, but one that has already peaked and now teeters on obsolescence.   Hyde takes the train each day because he absolutely loathes cars—which is fortuitous as it makes him a great character to focus on once all the cars go berserk.  When he come home each night, meanwhile, his wife Agnes nags him for hours to buy a car so they won’t be the embarrassment of the neighborhood.  This is where the “woman as boss” idea appears briefly in the book: even though Charles Hyde lives in the futuristic 21st century, he is really only a sci-fi cousin to the many bedraggled suburban commuter-droids populating all manner of genre fiction in the early sixties—sitting on the couch each night with a Martini while the wife in cold cream and curlers reminds him of all the shiny consumer crap they don’t own yet.   

Agnes is particularly interested in acquiring El Toro, an exciting new bright red model with scenes of bullfighting embroidered on the seats and gold-plated cattle horns emerging from the grill.   Charles is also pretty sure she’s having an affair with the guy running the car lot.   

This is one reason The Four Day Weekend is somewhat less insufferable than most sentient Chevrolet fiction—author Smith at least recognizes the whole genre is based on a type of perverse sexual sublimation, be it fourteen-year-old boys identifying with Big Mack trucks that just want to “rock you all night long” or a befuddled Jerry Van Dyke going through some form of creepy Oedipal crisis with a 1928 touring car.   While it’s not quite up there with Ballard’s Crash (1973), Smith’s book also explores our strangely erotic commitment to the one consumer investment we make that holds the greatest potential for killing us dead.  In fact, most of the book’s opening consists of Hyde witnessing increasingly horrific pile-ups around L.A., interspersed with his musings as to why we accept such carnage. 

But then we discover that all of these car wrecks are not "accidents" at all; instead, they are part of a systematic program of human genocide engineered by a new generation of computerized “super-cars.”  We have reached a tipping point, it seems, where WE are the ones in THEIR way, causing such inconvenience to our auto overlords that we must be targeted for extinction.

After that it’s pretty much every man for himself in the vehicular apocalypse.  Charles goes home to find his wife Agnes dead—somewhat predictably gored to death by El Toro.  He then leads a growing band of survivors through the city toward the Pacific where they hope to escape to an island off the coast renowned for having no automobiles.   

Which gives us the highpoint of the book, in my opinion.  Charles and the other survivors reach the island of San Marco, which in the 21st century survives as a type of beatnik commune.  Artist models walk around nude.  Bearded men wander about doing little to nothing.  There are no doubt bongos held in reserve somewhere.  Here at last, we think, is a refuge from the mad, mad, mad world of materialistic auto culture, a place to build a new utopia based on an economy of espresso, berets, and angry poems about “organizational man.”  But as they stand on the beach pondering the fate of the world, Charles and his friends see something on the horizon.  As it gets closer, it appears to be a ship of some kind.  Charles gets out his binoculars to take a closer look……Dear God, it’s El Toro!  It’s El Toro riding on a WWII-era landing craft, making straight for their beachhead!

Now this is why you read cheap genre fiction from the past—moments of beautifully unforced Surrealism that haunt the mind and inspire a chain of ever-more perplexing questions.  How, exactly, did El Toro commandeer a landing craft?  Is the landing craft a willing mechanical accomplice, suggesting that all modes of transportation have become sentient, or has he been forced on this mission against his will?  Given that we last saw El Toro somewhere near Santa Monica and that the major port in the area is in Long Beach, are we to imagine that an incensed El Toro had the presence of mind and determination of will to drive himself all the way down the 405 to find a landing craft so as to complete his oddly specialized mission of killing a single married couple?  Better yet, Charles can see through his binoculars that El Toro is MAD, angrily burning rubber back and forth (like a bull!) in the limited space of the troop carrier (which here becomes a floating pen leading to the bullring).  Astounding. 

Well, to bring this to an end, it turns out the cars have all been programmed to kill by a master computer back in Detroit (OMNIVAX!), necessitating that Charles, some beatniks, and his new and better replacement wife “Helga the nude model” must fly to Motor City and destroy it before it destroys all humanity.  As our final revelation, we find that the computer is itself under the control of--I kid you not--three large sponge-aliens in big jars that are using the cars to clear the planet for their own species.  I can only imagine this last detail came from an editor at Belmont, concerned perhaps that the book wasn’t yet “science-fictiony” enough.  Throw some alien sponges in there, that’ll keep the little twerps happy! 

The humans win of course, but with historical distance, it is a pyrrhic victory.  Reading the book in 2010, there is only the residual melancholia of having briefly revisited a world where the global apocalypse could conceivably issue from Detroit, a lost reality where Detroit still commanded enough economic and ideological power to feasibly control the nations of the earth.  I don’t have to tell you how sad and pathetic that all seems now from the perspective of the REAL 21st century America.  What a fate, even our own old popular culture now mocks us from the collapsing bookshelves of a million thrift stores.

Which leads to a final idea on the “hey my car is alive” front.  Rather than have Michael Bay waste his time on another Transformers film for infants and imbeciles, why not make the “talking car” film to end all “talking car” films, one appropriate to America’s plight in the new global order?  I’m pitching a film about a crack team of sentient 60’s muscle cars—Camaro, Challenger, GTO, Barracuda—that travel around the world A-Team style destroying the mass transit systems of the world’s more efficient capitals.  The London Tube?  Collapsed when Camaro sets off a series of timed explosions, careening wildly through Leicester Square as he makes a daring last second escape.  Train à Grande Vitesse?  Derailed by GTO and sent flying down the streets of Paris to overturn a comic chain of baguette carts.  The Hyundai plant in South Korea?  Destroyed in a tearful final sacrifice by Challenger as he takes one for the team, loading himself with vintage hand-grenades from the DMZ and detonating just as the first of the newest, most fuel-efficient Sonatas is about to roll off the line.

How to motivate this sudden campaign of violence?  Best to leave it wholly unexplained, I think, but as Hollywood could never stand such uncanny blankness, perhaps the cars can all accidently inhale “freedom dust” while on tour with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.  Filled with the spirit of American liberty, the four friends dedicate themselves to regaining the nation’s market-share in car production by any means necessary--preferably by instigating many awesome explosions.   Perhaps there can be a romantic B-plot as well, Barracuda falling for a lovely Citroën during the Paris mission. 

Please send me whatever residuals you believe are fair.    

Additional Note: As ridiculous as the above movie idea is, I just realized it may have been unconsciously channeled from a commercial featuring George Washington attacking some British Redcoats by driving a "new" Dodge Challenger into their line--holding aloft an American flag no less.  I like my idea better, but in fairness, the residuals should probably be shared.

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