he first car we bought in France, a tomato red Volvo, had once belonged to a Zen master. The Zen master sold it to a neighbor for one dollar. He in turn sold it to us for fair market value. Perhaps it was the first owner’s atmosphere that impregnated my own, for in the driver’s seat, when I had, if I may admit this to you, a neurosis about driving in France, it occurred to me that the car’s wheels went once around at a time. I could do that.
CODE DE LA ROUTE
How could anyone have issues with driving? Early on in my time in France, I sat in the car, parked on a hill, facing downward. It was a one-way street, also pointing downhill. I was about to pull out of the parking space. Of course, I looked behind me— no one coming. But for some unknown reason I hesitated; my hand was stayed. Just then, roaring up the hill, inches from the car, a pizza delivery person blew by me, going the wrong way on my one-way street. Naturally he was hugging the right side of the road. Had I pulled out a moment earlier, he would have slammed right into the car. I hadn’t even left the parking spot, and I had almost caused an accident. The code de la route in France, (rules of the road), specify that if any accident results from somebody leaving their parking spot, that driver is to blame.
THE WHEELS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND
So there I was in the Zen car, counting one revolution of the wheels at a time, on the way to the Bagatelle, a lovely rose garden west of Paris.
Watch out! Somebody could come zooming in from the right. Watch out! Obscured by trees, that was a traffic light at ground level on the near side of the intersection. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I saw a parking spot, big enough for my clumsy parking maneuvers, pulled in, and there we were. (Wherever there was.) What about the Bagatelle? Never mind, I said. We’ll just take a walk here. Turns out it was the back entrance of the Bagatelle. That is how I found things driving in France; they appeared in the mist.
LENNON ON THE ROAD
Cars and driving them are of course central to the American road trip novel. Kerouac’s On the Road flashed like a bright star in the fifties. Women in the book are, you know, well, it was the 50’s. A bit dispiriting on a re-read, despite the breaking out of the repressive male mode at the time and the great music threaded throughout. Exuberance, it’s true; there in spades. Somebody once referred to the Mother Road, probably Route 66, as linked directly to the American psyche.
One quirky Irish road trip novel you may not have heard about is from Kevin Barry, called Beatlebone, (2015). Kevin Barry was on the radar because he was long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize for literature in 2019 for a different novel, called Night Boat to Tangier. The library was out of that book, but there on the shelf stood Beatlebone, larger than life, a substitution that had a life of its own. (Something like a random pretty antique car parked in front of a cathedral. Note the red car, perhaps the property of a different Zen master.) Beatlebone involves John Lennon (yes, that John Lennon) on route to buy an island off the west coast of Ireland. This actually did take place in real life and Kevin Barry took it upon himself to imagine John Lennon’s inner state as he went forth.
It was not a sunny moment in Lennon’s life, which is probably Kevin Barry’s first insight into Lennon’s character, given that awful Irish weather which dogs the writer relentlessly. Here’s Kevin Barry reading for one minute about the weather from his collection of short stories.
Barry’s novel Beatlebone opens like this: “He [Lennon] sets out for the place as an animal might, as though on some fated migration. There is nothing rational about it nor even entirely sane and this is the great attraction. He has been travelling half the night east and nobody has seen him—if you keep your eyes down, they can’t see you. Across the strung-out skies and through the eerie airports and now he sits in the back of the old Mercedes.” Lennon asks the driver, a character we like quite well, where they are. The driver says, “It’d be very hard to say.” The driver doesn’t know? You’ve got to love it, right? Nothing rational or sane about the quest (check); driver doesn’t know where they are (check). Godot is lurking there in the wings.
This is not a sunny book. Although it is funny. I feel grateful to have a little more of John Lennon, even if invented. My sister feels this way also. She is the sister who called me to say that John Lennon had been shot. She would love to see the clip from the movie Yesterday on this post, the moment where Jack finds John Lennon alive in his seventies in a world where due to a glitch, memory of the Beatles and other things were erased for almost everybody. Click on three minutes of pure nostalgia. John Lennon
Driving. If I really had a neurosis about it, I would probably be compelled to talk more about it. See you next Friday.