Arts » Books

Liquor On Wheels

New paperbacks also include a horror flop

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As Alabama writer Paul Hemphill puts it, millions of Americans have a "vague notion that stock-car racing sprang from moonshine-hauling in the southern Appalachians prior to the Second World War." However, with the exception of Junior Johnson -- whose mainstream fame was sealed via Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Last American Hero" -- the lives and exploits of the "whiskey trippers" who brought a wild edge to stock-car racing's fledgling years have largely remained a mystery.

Until Driving With the Devil. Neal Thompson's book fills in many missing details of stock car racing's hell-raising early days in the 1930s and 1940s, and introduces readers to people who, if justice were served, would be pop culture legends.

Thompson brings the raw, dangerous energy of the era alive in stories of drivers like Curtis Turner, perhaps the hardest-driving and hardest-drinking man in NASCAR history, and Tim Flock, who won over 20 percent of the races he entered, and competed during one season with his pet monkey strapped into the passenger's seat. Thompson focuses on three passionate men who became the first true stock car racing "team": an enterprising ex-con named Raymond Parks, his foul-mouthed genius mechanic Red Vogt, and Red Byron, a disabled war vet who drove "full-tilt" to become NASCAR's first champion. Bill France, who started as a racing impresario in Daytona Beach, disliked the sport's former bootleggers, and eventually outmaneuvered Parks to control NASCAR when it was organized in 1947.

Thompson has little use for the man he calls "the P.T. Barnum of stock car racing," and blames France and his heirs for the sport's current sanitized corporate image. He also takes NASCAR to task for downplaying stock car racing's criminal-laden, whiskey-soaked birth, despite the fact that its early history is one of the most interesting things about the sport. One thing is certain, as this book makes clear: If it wasn't for bootleg runners, there would be no NASCAR. As Junior Johnson himself says, "Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail." It's that kind of casual edginess, as well as Thompson's solid reporting, that make Driving With the Devil a great contribution to both Southern cultural history and Americana lore -- and one hell of a ride.

"The most terrifying thing I've ever read"; "unbelievably horrible stuff happens"; "I almost shit myself." These were just some of the comments overheard in local bookstores at this time last year, spouted by shoppers who were practically jumping up and down, trying to convince someone else to read The Ruins, Scott Smith's second novel (after A Simple Plan).

It's the story of four young Americans on vacation in Cancun who are convinced by a German tourist to help him search for his brother at an archeological dig in the jungle. They're soon lost, amid signs that something odd has been going on. They find out soon enough that their problems are just beginning, as a bizarre nightmare scenario plays itself out.

As in A Simple Plan, Smith looks at how a group of people deals with being thrust into extreme, unfamiliar situations. Smith's dry, rather flat style and emotional distance worked well in his first novel, which threw characters into the middle of a dilemma that, although frightening, was conceivable. In The Ruins, however, emotional distance isn't what's needed. I kept waiting for the overpowering horror I'd heard about to take hold, but it's hard to care when someone meets a gruesome death if A) the character is an asshole, as all of this book's characters turn out to be, and B) the author doesn't seem to care either. If this isn't the most overrated novel of the past year, I sure don't want to read whatever is.

This atmospheric, "serious" whodunit takes place in World War I France, folding piercing character studies into a riveting triple mystery. Claudel transcends crime novel conventions as he poses the riddle of why the story's villagers are much more upset by three local deaths than by the endless slaughter going on at the front lines a few miles away. Elegantly written, the novel offers a spellbinding story that pivots on moral ambiguity -- that staple of modern life and literature -- while suggesting the historical beginnings of our conflicted modern psyches.

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