It’s been a road of fortuitous twists and turns that brought writer Earl Swift to his fifth book of narrative nonfiction, Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead And 57 Years of The American Dream. He’ll be at the Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. to read selections.
Swift, a a Fulbright fellow, five-time Pulitzer nominee, and PEN finalist, wrote as a beat news reporter for 22 years at Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, first as a city hall reporter, later as poetry editor and finishing in 2008 as a member of its renowned narrative features team. He started what became this book in 2004. He undertook to find the complete history of a 1957 Chevrolet Townsman station wagon.
“It started out as a five-part series about the first 11 owners,” Swift says. “It was very different story then; kind of a history of transportation Hampton Roads and southeastern Virginia.”
Then he met the 13th owner. Well, technically, he met him again. Swift first encountered Tom Arney as the owner of a strip club called The Body Shop.
The occasion was Swift interviewing Arney about his dispute with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control department about a law stipulating that no mixed drinks could be served near a woman with an exposed midriff or backside. “This of course went against the core of his business model,” Swift says. “And Tommy took the ABC to court – and against all odds and expectations, he won.” Swift walked into The Body Shop having heard stories about Arney, of his being arrested 70 times, and that during a melee outside a sailors' bar, he’d choked a K-9 officer’s German shepherd unconscious and used the animal to pummel the policeman.
“And I came away baffled and charmed. The guy I interviewed for two hours in this go-go bar was clearly an incredibly smart guy, charming as the day is long, a great sense of humor – he had me laughing almost the entire time — even though he looked like a professional wrestler.”
Move up into the fast lane to 2004, and the story of the ’57 Chevy. Swift had owned a series of cars in his 20s, most of them monumental heaps, and he wondered, as he suspects others do, where a certain car had gone, the places those who had ridden in it had seen. He set himself the task of finding not just an old car, but a special car, one with multiple owners during a period of time, allowing him to unspool a story. He didn’t care about the car’s make or brand.
“In the lives of many Americans, their car transcends a mere possession,” Swift says.
“It’s a relationship; a sidekick, a partner, it occupies a central place in our daily lives. They become venues for our most important moments. For plenty of Americans, their car is the only place they find sanctuary. They’re busy with kids and jobs and often the only time they get a minute’s peace is in their car. Among the sharpest memories I have is of my daughter singing in the back seat and me looking at her through the rear view mirror. I think like plenty of people, I’ve had some of my best and worst moments while behind the wheel. It seemed like this shared possession was sufficient to build this story around.”
The past drivers of a particular car are unknowing members in a fraternity of mutual mobility. By the time Swift set out on this “auto-biography,” he’d written three books, a collection of his newspaper chronicling, The Tangierman’s Lament; a history travelogue, Journey On The James; and Where They Lay, in which he accompanied a military forensics team to Laos to find the remains of U.S. pilots shot down during the Vietnam War. But of all these, the story about this car utilized everything he’d ever learned about research or writing.
“It’s one thing to think about a subject like this,” he wearily says. “It’s a big different thing to actually try to pull it off.”
He combed the Pilot’s classified section for used classic cars. “This was before it was all foreclosure notices,” he says.
The 1957 Chevy station wagon that's the subject of Earl Swift's book, "Auto Biography"
After sifting through possibilities, he came across a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon owned by a born-again Christian garbage man named Dave Marcincuk. He knew the car’s entire chain of title, but because the vehicle spent most of its time on a farm, it had just four past owners. This wouldn’t do for Swift’s story. But as he was leaving, Marcincuk mentioned another automobile he wanted to restore into his daily driver. It was the rusted heap of a 1957 Chevy wagon. Swift’s first reaction wasn’t one of hitting a jackpot. “It was ‘No way I’ll be able to trace back a 47-year-old car.’”
More out of consideration for Marcincuk, Swift opened the driver’s side door to copy the registration number and faxed it to the DMV. A few days later, a brown envelope arrived with two title transfers that had been totally redacted. But when Swift lifted the paper to fluorescent light, he could see then names. Marcincuk remembered whom he brought it from, “And from this mighty acorn, I find the first 11 owners, sometimes through pieces of blind luck, and then a couple of years later, the car had gone through two more owners.”
Among Swift’s challenges was that the Department of Motor Vehicles had shredded almost all of its pre-digital paper files. To seek his quarry, Swift used investigatory skills honed from years of newspapering.
A couple of years after the initial series ran, and while working on Big Roads, about the birth of the national interstate highway system, Swift substitute taught for a colleague’s feature writing class at Old Dominion University. The class syllabus called for the day to be about chasing paper: how to find documents and where to go looking for them. He brought along one of the most valuable research tools ever devised: a hulking city directory. The directories give names, addresses, and cross index employment, among other vital pieces of information. The students couldn’t believe such a thing existed. “The directories were extremely helpful when I was closing the gaps on owners of the Chevy,” Swift says.
After class, a hipster-looking young man, face roughened by a couple of days' worth of beard, came up to Swift and told him, “My Dad owns that car now.” His name was Ryan — the son of Tom Arney.
Swift then knew he had a book. This, and other serendipitous occasions confirmed that “I wasn’t digging out the story – the story was telling itself.”
He followed for three years as Arney attempted to rehabilitate the car against a host of distractions, not the least of which was Arney being the focus of an FBI investigation and indictment in his role in the failure of the Bank of The Commonwealth, the largest in Virginia history. “That’s unfolding all the while he’s trying to get this car up and running,” Swift says.
Courtesy Earl Swift
The 1957 Chevy station wagon featured in Earl Swift's "Auto Biography."
He wrote the 106,000-word book last year on a fellowship with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Novelist Don DeLillo focused on a baseball used in the famous 1951 Giants-Dodgers National League pennant game to carry readers through the tumultuous Cold War period in his critically acclaimed 1997 Underworld. He might’ve instead used a ’57 Chevy station wagon. Swift tracked the car back to the day it rolled off the assembly line in, of all places, Baltimore. The car, designed with "jet age optimism" and in the dawning of the cul-de-sac archipelago, is now an artifact that has (literally) traveled through the times of the Cold War to the Persian Gulf Wars and all the complications that have arisen as a result.
To know what happened to Arney, and the Chevy, come hear Swift speak at Fountain Books on Wednesday.