Monday, May 4, 2009

Rabbit is no longer rich

“RUNNING out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won't catch him, not yet, because there isn't a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue. That's all he has to tell the people when they come in. And come in they do, the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending.”

Ah, but Updike’s character is not going to hell in a handbasket as the world ends in 1980, not he. Rabbit, pulling himself out of his sexual maelstroms, his jock nostalgia, the investment of his bile and love in Vietnam, ends up selling Japanese because his father in law was ahead of the game, there in the East Pennsylvania town of Mt. Judge where Rabbit’s life keeps threatening to dribble away, a story preserved in newspaper clippings framed and under glass and yellowing in his office. And yet, just as Rabbit had gravely misjudged Vietnam and the Lord’s work there, his bloodyhanded work there, so, too, he misjudged the great American ride – it just seemed like it was ending, then. That was before the Great Moderation, or the great immoderation of responding to two consecutive global oil shocks by doubling down on the tonnage, making the Jeep, the truck or at least its underbody the big cash cow for the big cash cow Americans, debt coming out of their assholes. The river is deep and the lane is wide, and we have to get to the other side – and so we will by main force, herding together to and from work, which gets more tiring and more pointless and makes more money for more ghosts, ghost money for somebody somewhere else, while the restless body, that daytime tomb for the wandering, culturally starved spirit, aspires to 30,000 dollars worth of vehicle, mall weekends and houses that one can ATM the home equity from for another pop at the good life, however ill advised, however little parents, school, tv, and church had prepared you for one, for even knowing what one looked like if it bumped into you, instead selling you a lemon, “happiness”, a “happy life”, a term of imprisonment not to exceed the carcinogen count down ticking away in your liver, thyroid, prostate, brain.

“A hundred twelve units new and used moved in the first five months of 1979, with eight Corollas, five Coronas including a Luxury Edition Wagon, and that Celica that Charlie said looked like a Pimpmobile unloaded in these first three weeks of June already, at an average gross mark-up of eight hundred dollars per sale. Rabbit is rich.”

Rabbit is lucky. And then there are the Arnolds, featured today in the NYT:

“The Arnold Pontiac dealership is not one of those glass-encased bazaars winking from the main drag, with a showroom the size of a parking lot and a name that sounds like a law firm with too many partners: “Acme Chevrolet Buick Jeep Hyundai Volkswagen Kia Saab. How may I direct your call?”
No, Arnold Pontiac pretty much says it all.
The dealership sits exactly where the Arnold family began a car business back in 1916: on the corner of North Main and East Pike in the pit-stop Western Pennsylvania town of Houston, right next to the First Presbyterian Church, where Arnolds are baptized. Small showroom downstairs, service and parts upstairs, free Pontiac calendars everywhere.”

The Arnolds face, of course, the problem that selling Pontiacs will soon be a job like wrangling dodoes – it will lack an objective correlative. The Pontiac has been given a thumbs down by GM. The NYT story is heavy on color. Dan Barry is trying to reflect, in an Updikian way, on what the end of this phase of the American ride means for America. Here’s the obit part:

“His son, who started working at the dealership when he was 6, using a step stool to dust the tops of gleaming Bonnevilles and GTOs, is still trying to process the apparent evaporation of this chunk of his inheritance. “I’m not going to entertain that just yet,” says the younger Mr. Arnold, who sold his first car in 1987. (“Green Sunbird.”)
As Detroit and Washington work to save the car industry from going over a cliff like some roadster in a black-and-white melodrama, entire families have been upended — families that long ago linked their surname to the name of Pontiac in commercial banns of marriage.
For example, the Arnolds are friends with the Mikans, a longtime Pontiac family in Butler, about 60 miles north of here. Robert Mikan, 76, and his son, David, 39, watched last Monday’s devastating news conference on a computer screen in their dealership, in a back room where an old plaque from the Pennsylvania Automotive Association hangs tilted on the gray paneled wall.
After a while the son, whose first sale was a used white 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix, turned to his father, whose first sale was a gray 1946 Pontiac Torpedo, and said, “Dad, I think that’s it.”

I think that’s it. Hit the road, jack. Creative destruction. Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by destroying them utterly; and shalt thou be delivered? Oh no, we shall not be delivered, for Assyria has a precontract on the American heart; it has written the word market on that heart, and though the organ throb and moan, it will never bust through that sublime phrase. Dan Barry’s article may sprinkle color over this extinction, but you must read the other half of it, the comments section, to understand the American "love affair" with the car, the American ride - that deeply fucked up knot of contradictory impulses. There is nothing Americans hate like mourning a business gone bad. You can gawk to your heart’s content at the wreck at the side of the road, but let’s not get sentimental about the bloodshed – especially of a car dealer. For this is the thing - in this love affair, there has to be some way of unloading the deep reserves of hatred, the psychotic and jagged shadow that the car leaves behind, its trace in the air.

“I have never bought a new car but that I wasn't lied to, cheated, or ripped off. I have absolutely no sympathy or pity for dealers going under; they richly deserve it. It is particularly irksome to hear those guys whine. Stop whining. Get a job.”

“My first job out of undergrad was in Houston, PA and the car I bought with my first paycheck: a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am, from that very dealership. That car, incidentally, was also the reason why I switched to, and continue to drive Hondas.

My dad recommended the Grand Am to me; he was an Oldsmobile man who worked his whole life at United States Steel Corporation. From my first week of ownership, that Grand Am had serious electrical problems; the engine would stall on I-79 even travelling at full speed. A mechanic at the dealership told me that it was a bad model and that a lot of them were just “thrown together in Detroit with such high speed that many had serious problems.” He then walked me over to a shipment of fresh cars; each had a box of parts in the back that GM hadn’t installed at the factory, which the dealer mechanics would have to do, often without proper training.

The first trip to my Dad’s house in my Honda Civic (after only 3 months of Pontiac ownership) he wouldn’t allow me to park in the driveway. He now owns a Toyota, giving up on GM himself after the end of Oldsmobile forced him into a sub-quality Cadillac: people don’t make expensive mistakes twice.

And so Pontiac dies a shortened, yet somehow also prolonged and painful death, a bit like Elvis. It really won’t be long before Buick, Chevy, and Chrysler follow. For there’s one thing the American auto industry still don’t get… we aren’t impressed by companies that make only one decent car in a sea of otherwise sub-standard products. The fact is, you won’t find a single model from Honda or Toyota that isn’t at the top of its class. But you could find every Pontiac at or near the bottom.”
And what I want to know is: how do you like your blue eyed boy Mr. Death?


Brian said...

Are we culturally capable of producing good cars? Or is the only thing the United States "capable" of is casino scandal financial "products" and weapons (produced via cost be damned non-market private in name only companies that don't follow market forces)

Roger Gathmann said...

Brian, it is spring! Look out at the trees, the birds, the pretty people. Say to yourself, "yes we can!" or something.

Just joking, although you are even more of a pessmist than me!

Personally, I think this country will continue to make crap cars for incountry use until we are forced, by rising oil prices, to get better.

But outside of this country, Ford, for instance, makes quite decent cars. I've heard many good things about Ford's diesel cars for the European market.