Books: Guzzi girls finish first

THE PERFECT VEHICLE by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Granta pounds 7.99
The true motorcycle was not born until 1885, when Gottlieb Daimler created a wooden-framed, gas-fuelled addition to the scores of iron-wheeled, crackpot machines conceived by tweedy late-19th-century eccentrics, usually in the back shed. The Cynophere, for example, for which M Huret of Paris secured his US patent in 1875, depended for its movement on two dogs trapped inside treadmills which doubled as wheels. M Huret happily announced that "for pleasure purposes it is unsurpassed, and when fully introduced to the American public [it] is destined to achieve a popularity far greater than the velocipede, while the modern expense will bring it within easy reach of all." Melissa Holbrook Pierson dryly commends M Huret's understanding of the public love of a bargain (though we don't learn where he suggests the dogs be procured). But she also hints at his marketing error: "He didn't sufficiently note the fact that he was attempting a translation from a country that ate horse meat to one that did not."

Modern motorbikes have names like Monster and Dominator; no more the pioneer-o adventurers suggested by the Vincent Black Shadow, the Indian Scout, or the Handerson Ace, or the World War Two cartoon-strip hero, le cow-boy motorise. Modern motorbike rallies, Pierson laments, are polluted by gangs of louts who shout "Tits!" at any passing female. They sell T- shirts bearing legends like "Aids Cures Fags", and "Speak English or Get the Fuck Out". Why on earth, you wonder, does she attend these rallies?

The questions "Why am I obsessed with motorbiking?" and "Why don't more women ride motorbikes?" infuse this book. Pierson's mother instructed her in the discipline of prompt thank-you letters; Mrs King's ballroom dancing-class instructed her in the codes of cutlery. Her schooldays pointed towards a quiet life spent behind library stacks, wearing "muted silk scarves and subtle glasses". "How did motorbikes ever enter this equation?" she asks.

Pierson is a nervy twentysomething journalist (parts of this book were published independently in Harper's and the Threepenny Review). She earns a living by proofing romantic novels and sending poems into futile orbit around distant dead stars. Secretly, she longs for someone to love her to happiness, to cure her alienation, to soothe her terrors. She suffers some disastrous affairs, which draw her towards motorbikes, chiefly those of her unsuitable men. Her anxiety (the Fear, as she calls it) grows. One heartbroken winter after Tad, a "sculptor", has abandoned her, and after months of ignoring the Moto Guzzi V50 she bought with him, now growing dusty in her garage, she learns to ride it and to love riding it. She has more unhappy affairs, now exclusively with other bikers, and remains paralysed by the pervasive, unspecified terror.

The Perfect Vehicle crunches like a series of graceless gear-changes between a variety of tones and genres - technical manual, fanatical sermon- to-the-converted, pop-feminist rant, journalistic extracts (some chapters read too much like the articles they were), agonised psychoanalytical autobiography, teen coming-of-age story. One chapter, entitled (and indeed consisting of) "A Brief Catalog of Spills", owes much of its prose style to the macho reportage of programmes like Police, Camera, Action!. We are plunged into a tour of the author's pathologies, which she increasingly projects on her bike. (By the end of the book, she has identified them as obsessive-compulsive disorder, compounded by severe anxiety.)

Often, she is rapturous about the Guzzi, stacking its mechanical rationality against the uncertainty of her boyfriends, her unalloyed pleasure in its speed against their shortcomings. At one rather silly point it even talks to her, advises her to "captain your own ship". Sometimes Pierson fears that the Guzzi suffers the same doomed fragility as she does: "I would be riding along through the beauteous world, pressed by the heavy certainty that both of us were dying." Occasionally, it becomes just another agent of her inevitable destruction.

Interspersed between this diary of recovery are some interesting, well- researched discussions. Pierson sketches an intelligent cultural history of the demonisation of bikers in America: the bourgeois horror at the refusal of the lower orders to stay in their place, the "terrible specter of the prole run amok" on the poor man's automobile; the disaffected men who came home to unemployment from the Second World War to run in biker gangs and became the first Hell's Angels, thus lending popular credibility to the existence of a new monster, the teenager. This delinquent on two wheels was exemplified by Marlon Brando's greaser in The Wild One, seducing good girl Mary Murphy into saying naughty things like "It's fast - It scared me - But it felt good."

Pierson is also perspicacious on how the bikers' machismo was subverted to become a rough-trade gay icon, and on the cultural forces which still exclude women from motorbiking. The conventions of pornography only ever show women in proximity to powerful bikes when they are positioned provocatively around them, nipples erect - in effect, waiting for a bloke to actualise that power, to which the woman herself has no access. Pierson's observations about the alienation the biker feels on the road ring true, especially that of the woman biker - as do her comments on the parallel admission into "an elect", the solidarity between bikers, who observe a kind of mechanised freemasonry. But, in the end, such discourses peter out, chiefly because of the book's lack of focus. They are abandoned for an attempt to map the afflictions of the troubled heart - and the result is often mawkish.

This book doesn't really advance the cause of women bikers. The balance between style and content is often dubious, and the supposed nod to girl- power seems rather to reinforce the idea that women on motorbikes are a transgression of sexual norms. In the end, The Perfect Vehicle fails to achieve real lyricism. It is disappointing, given the subject-matter, that it should remain so pedestrian.