Michael Perry is not a trucker. But you'd never know it by the way he writes."It's interesting what you feel up there," he writes, "with those 475 horses chooglin' along at your feet, the turbo holdin...
Michael Perry is not a trucker. But you’d never know it by the way he writes.
“It’s interesting what you feel up there,” he writes, “with those 475 horses chooglin’ along at your feet, the turbo holding its high, thin note, sucking down air, turning it into miles, blowing them out the twin stacks while the rest of the world sits still and falls behind.”
The American essayist/humorist has his hand on the gear shift and the hammer down. Trucking themes run like Interstates throughout his latest book, Big Rigs, Elvis and The Grand Dragon Wayne. Whether he’s hitching a ride in a rickety semi with a Spanish sugar cane hauler in Belize, or hopping in and out of truck cabs on a mid-America trucking odyssey, or talking to the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot about driving Johnny Cash’s Peterbilt, Perry’s prose sits squarely between the white lines.
It sure sounds like he’s got the trucking bug. He talks warmly about the romance of the road from his home in New Auburn, Wisc. “When a big rig pulls around me and slowly pulls away, I’m fascinated by the idea of where those wheels will roll.”
Perry has endured a variety of industrial jobs and occasionally tries his hand at driving the pumper for the local volunteer fire department. But it’s interesting that a non-trucker would have such a strong grasp of the trade. “It’s because I’m not a trucker,” he told Truck News in a telephone interview. “If I did it for a living, or came from that background, perhaps I would overlook the critical nuances of the profession simply because they became familiar.”
Perry makes no bones about his affection for truckers. As he says in his essay The Road Ahead, “There are people that would like to see you off the road so they can drive unimpeded to the mall, where the shelves are filled with inexpensive goods.”
And he’s less than kind to ignorant motorists, and especially drivers of SUVs, which he calls the “toy poodles” of the truck world. “Some yobbo in a bitsy four-wheeler sees a 10-foot patch of concrete off the front bumper of a Kenworth and homesteads it in a heartbeat…from up here, the cars – all of them, even the overblown SUVs -look flighty and irresponsible, he writes.
But he’s not afraid to call a Neanderthal a Neanderthal, what he terms the “log-book-bending Deliverance extra.” Stereotypes are hard to overcome and the image of the redneck trucker is hard to shake. “An hour at a truckstop will only reinforce the worst caricatures,” he writes. “Recurring themes: bellies, cigarettes, and scruffy disgruntlement, often clad in overdue laundry.
“But, taken as a whole, the best drivers on the road – men and women – are still truckers.”
Much in the tradition of John Steinbeck or Garrison Keelor, Perry is a writer who values decency, tolerance, fair play and a strong work ethic. But he doesn’t make the mistake of over-romanticizing the working class. “Hard work alone does not make a person noble,” he says during the interview. “The blue-collar worker can also be a nasty cuss, brutish, unthinking and close-minded.”
The link between music and trucking is also strong in Perry’s work. In The Road Gang, he describes the magic of tuning in one of the all night trucking shows on the AM dial, at the time of night when the world is sleeping and the strong American stations skip across hundreds of miles and land with a whine and crackle in your dash set.
Comparing Michael Perry to John Steinbeck is not that far-fetched. After all, in The Grapes of Wrath, it was a truck that brought the Joad family from Oklahoma to California. And Steinbeck, like Perry, is fascinated with the lives truckers lead. “They are a breed set apart from the life around them,” Steinbeck writes in Travels with Charley. “For the truckers cruise the nation without being a part of it. It was driven home to me how like sailors they were. It is a whole pattern of life, little known to the settled people along the routes of the great trucks.”
Thank goodness for Michael Perry, then. He is poetic again as the interview draws to a close. “Sometimes, I like to stand outside some truck stop in the middle of nowhere, listening to the big rigs rolling by. Solitude and motion. That’s where my happiness lies.”n
– Big Rigs, Elvis and The Grand Dragon Wayne (Whistlers and Jugglers Press, 1999) is available through Amazon.com or www.sneezingcow.com.