BOOK REVIEW / Cruising along on the wheels of history: The biography of a Buick - Bill Morris: Granta pounds 8.99

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The Independent Online
THE MEANS by which Bill Morris, a North Carolina newspaper columnist, has made headway into the novel form becomes clear to the reader in one short scene of his first book. A journalist is selling an idea to a Life magazine editor over lunch. 'I think the approach to it would be to pick a particular car,' suggests the editor, 'then write the story of how it starts as an idea and becomes a machine - sort of like a biography.'

'That's it: Biography of a Buick]' he exclaims: he has his story.

And Morris has his novel, for, essentially, The Biography of a Buick is feature journalism with knobs on. Characters, too, but, more importantly, a procession of historical icons at which they can gawp: it is 1957 and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio have just got married, Disneyland has just opened, Ike and Mamie are on ticker-tape parade, atom bombs are being tested in the Pacific, and Superman and The Flash are being hoarded under adolescent beds up and down America.

Morris's fictional characters face stiff competition. As the novel opens Ted Mackay, the Buick General Manager in Detroit, is about to embark on an affair with one of his designers, in an attempt to find out who on the production line has been leaking designs to their main rivals, Plymouth.

The production line is being further scrutinised by a journalist, Morey Caan, who has put on hold his attempts to expose Eisenhower in order to pursue his Life commission. Plugging his mole on the inside of the Buick factory for all the latest shop-floor intrigues, Morey exclaims: 'Jeez, sounds like Washington.'

As that 'jeez' suggests, much of the significance of The Biography of a Buick depends on having a journalist present to remark on it, which perhaps explains the fact that by page 67 three major characters have been revealed as aspirant writers. As it does in Tom Wolfe's fiction, the press gallery works as a sort of instant significance amplifier. When a Buick chief defending his position on Ike's cabinet comes up with the ingenious defence that 'what was good for the country was good for General Motors - and vice versa', Morey is on hand to think, 'What a gem]', thus driving the connection home on behalf of lazy readers everywhere.

You can see the young Wolfe going to town on this story - a portrait of American sass and status through its car wars. In 1957 the Buick achieved record sales and its day-glo hues suffuse the book: hot pink and jet black, gobs of chrome flung down the sides, the key to its attraction being that 'it looked as if it was always in motion'. And, like many of the historical icons that lurk in the novel's background, streaking toward obsolescence.

The problem is that in the latter half of the novel the factory conspiracy plot, the marital affair and the impending threat of Morey's hatchet job are all put on ice while Morris's fascination with historical decor comes to the foreground, to intrusive effect. A Buick employee, for instance, wanders into a local record store owned by a young black entrepreneur, who describes his remarkable idea of merging black and white music for the mainstream. It's Berry Gordy. And who should be leafing through the records? Another young black with a fine falsetto voice, Bill Robinson, who goes by the name of . . . Smokey.

You soon get the hang of this. Some quiet, dark-haired guy moping in the front seat of a car? Kerouac. And if some character remarks to a father 'your son is a hell of a singer', that father's surname has to be Presley. It doesn't really matter who says this because by this stage Morris's characters have become simply the foils of historical destiny, the sorts of people who in biopics walk out of a new restaurant complimenting the owner on the thickness of their shakes, only to reveal, as they depart into the night, a big makeshift 'M' arching over the door.

This is fun for a while, but by the time the emigre Russian professor is wheeled on to deflower somebody's young wife in the back of a Buick, these literary jump- starts serve only to illustrate how stalled Morris's own narrative motor has become. Less of a Buick, more of a Morris Minor.