BOOK REVIEW / Dreams of tail-fins and gas-guzzling: Biography of a Buick - Bill Morris: Granta, pounds 8.99

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The Independent Culture
THE YEAR is 1954. Will Lomax, a publicity man for General Motors, whose job is to dream up ideas to make people want the 1954 Buick Century, a big fat boat of a gas-guzzling car, comes back home from a business trip, goes to bed, gets up, goes back to work, comes home again.

His wife is standing at the kitchen sink, arms crossed. 'Who's Cindy?' she snaps, 'I found her name and number in your shirt pocket.' Lomax doesn't miss a beat. 'Oh, that Cindy,' he snaps back. 'That's Cindy Warhover, district manager in LA.'

She's not, of course - she's an air hostess - but Lomax, pushing into middle age, is honing his skills as a middle-aged man: youthful idealism draining away, he's getting good at compromise, lying, meeting his sales targets. And that's what this perceptive, readable book is all about: it's all about how, in 1954, America was in exactly the same position as Will Lomax.

Ted Mackey, who heads the General Motors Buick division, is even better at being middle-aged than Will. A former wartime pilot, Ted spends his days barking out large numbers and examining pictures of tail fins and his evenings pumping away at his sexy mistress who looks like his wife looked 15 years ago. Ted goes around 'jacket off, tie loose, shirt sleeves rolled up, drink in his fist, pure Detroit'.

That's not just a description of Ted Mackey - that's a description of America in 1954: the war over, jacket off, tie loose, America is a middle-aged salesman at a party. This isn't only the era of huge fat cars; it's the era of Ike and Mamie, of Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio, of spreading suburbs, witch- hunts, blunders in Vietnam.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is the author's sense of history - this may be the story of a few people going to sales meetings and getting off with each other, but on every other page he makes you feel you're witnessing the origins of the world we know today. And he weaves in some interesting cameos - Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's; the young Elvis Presley; even Vladimir Nabokov gets a look-in, deflowering one of his students as he struggles with the manuscript of a weird book he's writing about a middle-aged man who can't take his eyes off nubile girls.

So all this stuff is happening - the cynical modern world is being born - and just about nobody notices. Something else, something much more important, is happening: the front bumper of the Plymouth looks exactly like the front bumper of the Buick] Ted Mackey can hardly believe it. Is there a spy in the GM styling division? Surely not - surely the world can't really be as rotten and horrible and lowdown as that.

The answer, of course, is yes - the world is that horrible, and the one man in the book to see this is Morey Caan, a journalist who decides to write an investigative piece on the Detroit car industry. When he arrives, he is staggered. He thinks: 'Now we're getting in touch with the essence of American sickness.' Which is something the author of this book has done admirably. Read it on the beach - or, alternatively, in the social science seminar.

(Photograph omitted)