Why I wrote Brothers of the Milky Way

Just in case you missed the 60 Minutes special or the White House press conference: I wrote a novel, Brothers of the Milky Way, about (among other things) the friendship between a car-crazed East Bay supermarket cashier and an environmentalist drifter.  Blue Tower Press is where you’ll find the ebook; the price is right, as you’ll see.  Online retailers should soon stock a print edition, but I’m afraid real coin-of-the-realm will have to be asked for it.  Printing and paper aren’t free.

I think the book’s afterword does a pretty thorough job of explaining the novel’s reason for being, but a complete reading of the afterword will spoil the plot, so I’ll say a little more here.

Years before I donned my first plastic pocket protector and held forth at a chalkboard, I was two things that I never mentioned at transitpeople.org: a failed novelist (to be frank and uncharitable about it), and an amateur auto mechanic.  These careers were related.  I lived in the ‘burbs, felt I needed a car to get around, but lacked the Stephen King-sized bank account to buy a snazzy new one.  All I could afford were neurotic old beaters.  These had lost whatever will to live a machine can possess, and had a knack for breaking down at the worst possible times, like family black sheep who throw wingdings at weddings and reunions.  I resolved to learn to fix these depressed cars, make them whole again.

This I did.  Kind of.  Amateur auto repair is a lot like fluency in a second language; you may quickly learn to ask for a menu in español, but remain ill equipped for a philosophy debate at the Instituto Tecnologico.  I don’t recommend the hobby to others, but, just the same:  I took auto shop at the local junior college, and joined a vocational program that gave me access to a floor lift, air tools and other professional equipment.  Most of my mechanicking was done on an antediluvian Volkswagen microbus, which I christened Moo, for her Usain Bolt-like fleet footedness on the freeway.  I became fond of Moo for her own sake, like one learning to love a spouse in an arranged marriage, and joined The Society of Transporter Owners, to celebrate Moo and other silly old Wolfsburg crates like her.  I prowled junk yards for gear.  I longed for more pep and get-up-and-go from Moo, and studied speed equipment catalogs that promised to invigorate her.

On the road to Olema in the early 1980s

On the road to Olema in the early 1980s

In short: I immersed myself in car culture, or at least the old Volkswagen side of car culture.  In shop I met fellow twenty somethings who very nearly lived and died for their cars, whose lives revolved around their Chevelles and ‘Stangs and Rancheros with the perfect fidelity of a planetary body orbiting a star.  I may never have met my protagonist Hank, but certainly met his buddies.

A late eighties friendship with an environmental writer taught me to think of my hobby differently.  I was persuaded by her arguments, won over, but also privately amused by the yawning chasm between green sensibilities and the culture of car nuts.  I thought this chasm merited a story, and made one out of it: The Image of Red Cloud,  finished in 1991.  Publishers greeted Image with the zeal they had shown for my other works.  I didn’t sell it.

Twenty years passed.  I moved to Los Angeles, became a teacher, started TransitPeople, retired, returned to the Bay Area.  I didn’t feel much affection for most of the output of my literary years, but Hank and his saga were an exception.  I could sometimes imagine my old protagonist snickering behind me as I squirmed for breathing space on jammed-to-the-gills Wilshire buses, particularly if one of my fellow straphangers had avoided the shower for a few weeks.  I decided that the story deserved to be rewritten.

There is more to it than that, but I think I’ve said enough for now.  Please see the afterword for the rest.

I thoroughly enjoyed the two years just spent on the rewrite.  I’m not young anymore, but was in 1974, when Brothers begins, and was as happy as any other old geezer would be to take a nostalgic cruise back in the time machine.  I warn in the afterword against taking one’s fictional escapes too seriously, but enjoy my own escapes now and then, too.  I felt a little depressed to upload the final .pdf.  I wouldn’t be able to visit with Hank, Evelyn and Logos any more.

I don’t think of it as an especially profound story.  Remember, please: I came up with the nuts and bolts of the tale over twenty years ago.  I have changed a bit since then.  All I hope is that some of you like it, that you can kick back with your Kindles and Nooks and iPads and enjoy Hank and Evelyn and Logos a fraction as much as I did.  If you dislike them or am bored by them, well, I will have failed.

I am grateful for the auto aficionados who helped with research, and thanked them in the afterword.  Naming them here would give away too much of the plot; at least one is well known.  My story includes some breathless chatter about cars, from the protagonist’s perspective, but I have persuaded myself that it won’t encourage anyone to hanker after an old muscle car.  I do worry that the chatter will annoy some enthusiasts, who might regard it as skeptically as a Sugar daddy taking in the the goo-goo eyes and seductively parted lips of a courtesan known to be an avowed lesbian.  She might dissemble convincingly, but is dissembling nonetheless, just as I dissemble when I stand in Hank’s shoes and go on breathlessly about cars.

If that’s the case, I apologize.  If it’s any consolation: I can still feel a genuine, unfaked pang at the sight of the nice old split window microbuses advertised at thesamba.com.  Yes, my bus polluted more than a fleet of Priuses, relied on four wheel drum brakes and offered no protection in a front end crash, but I’d still like to take her out for a spin again.  There’s no fool like an old one.

I hope you enjoy the story.  That’s about all.  I did.

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