By T.C. Boyle
Hardcover, 464 pages
List price: $27.95
I didn't know much about automobiles at the time—still don't, for that matter—but it was an automobile that took me to Taliesin in the fall of 1932, through a country alternately fortified with trees and rolled out like a carpet to the back wall of its barns, hayricks and farmhouses, through towns with names like Black Earth, Mazomanie and Coon Rock, where no one in living memory had ever seen a Japanese face. Or a Chinese either. Stop for fuel, a sandwich, a chance to use the washroom, and you'd think a man had come down from Mars and propped himself up on the seat of a perfectly ordinary canary-yellow and pit-of-hell-black Stutz Bearcat roadster. (And what is a bearcat, anyway? Some hybrid monster out of an adman's inventory, I suppose, a thing to roar and paw and dig at the roadway, and so this one did, as advertised.) Mostly, along that route on a day too hot for October, and too still, too clear, as if the season would never change, people just stared till they caught themselves and looked away as if what they'd seen hadn't registered, not even as a fleeting image on the retina, but one man—and I won't take him to task here because he didn't know any better and I was used to it by then—responded to my request for a hamburger sandwich by dropping his jaw a foot and a half and exclaiming, "Well, Jesus H. Christ, you're a Chinaman, ain't ya?"
The whole business was complicated by the fact that the ragtop didn't seem to want to go up, so that my face was exposed not only to the glare of the sun and a withering cannonade of dust, chicken feathers and pulverized dung, but to the stares of every stolid Wisconsinite I passed along the way. The ruts were maddening, the potholes sinks of discolored water that seemed to shoot up like geysers every fifty feet. And the insects: I'd never in my life seen so many insects, as if spontaneous generation were a fact and the earth gave them up like grains of pollen, infinite as sand, as dust. They exploded across the windscreen in bright gouts of filament and fluid till I could barely make out the road through the wreckage. And everywhere the lurching farm dogs, errant geese, disoriented hogs and suicidal cows, one obstacle after another looming up in my field of vision till I began to freeze at every curve and junction. I must have passed a hundred farm wagons. A thousand fields. Trees beyond counting. I clung to the wheel and gritted my teeth.
Three days earlier I'd celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday—alone, on the overnight train from Grand Central to Chicago's Union Station, a commemorative telegram from my father in my suitcase alongside my finger- worn copies of the Wendingen edition and the Wasmuth portfolio and several new articles of clothing I felt I might find useful in the hinterlands, denim trousers and casual shirts and the like. I never did bother to unpack them. To my mind, this expedition was a ritual undertaking, calling for formal dress and conventional behavior, despite the rigors of the road and what I can only call the derangement of the countryside. My hair, combed and re-combed repeatedly against the buffeting of the wind, was a slick brilliantined marvel of study and composition, and I was dressed in my best suit, a new collar and a tie I'd selected especially for the occasion. And while I hadn't opted for the goggles or cap, I did stop in at Marshall Field's for a pair of driving gloves (dove-gray, in kid leather) and a white silk scarf I envisioned fl uttering jauntily in the wind but which in fact knotted itself in a sweaty chokehold at my throat before I'd gone ten miles.
I kept my spine rigid and held to the wheel with one hand and the mysterious gearshift with the other, just as the helpful and courteous man at the automobile agency had demonstrated the previous night in Chicago when I'd purchased the car. It was a 1924 model, used but "very sporty," as he assured me—"in terrific condition, first-rate, really first-rate"—and I paid for it with a check drawn on the account my father had set up for me when I'd disembarked at San Francisco four years earlier (and to which, generously and indulgently, he continued to add on the first of each month).
I have to admit I liked the looks of it as it sat there at the curb, motion arrested, power in reserve, all of that, though I wondered what my father would have thought of it. Inevitably it brought to mind loose women and undergraduates in raccoon coats—or worse yet, gangsters—but the other cars looked ordinary beside it. Funereal, even. There was one black Durant that should have had a mortuary sign in the window, and there must have been a dozen or more Fords sitting there looking as dull as dishwater in the faded paint Henry Ford had dubbed Japan black (and I can't imagine why, unless he was thinking of ink sticks and kanji, but then how would he or any of his designers in the remote xenophobic purlieus of Detroit know anything of kanji?).
There didn't seem to be any bullet holes in the fenders, not as far as I could see, and the engine spat and roared in a gratifying way. I climbed in, took a turn or two around the block, the salesman at my side shouting out directions, admonitions and beginner's praise, and then I was on my own, creeping out of town as the ratcheting high-crowned Fords and Chevrolets came roaring at me or shot up to overtake me from behind. I didn't give them a second glance, even when my fellow drivers crowed in derision and made rude gestures out the streaming windows. No, I was too busy, gearshift, clutch, brake and accelerator requiring my full and very close attention. (In theory, piloting a car was nothing at all, a mere reflex—anybody could do it, even women—but in practice it was like plunging into a superheated public bath over and over again.)
As for the countryside, the closest I'd come to a rural setting was at Harvard University, where my dormitory room looked out on well-kept lawns, shrubbery and the deep continents of shade cast by the oaks and elms that had brooded over the heads of generations before me. I'd never been to a farm, even to visit, and I found my meat and eggs in the market like anyone else. No, I was a thoroughly urban being, raised in a series of apartments in the Akasaka district of Tokyo and in Washington, D.C., where for six years my father was cultural attaché at the Japanese embassy. Sidewalks appealed to me. Paved avenues. Streetlights and shops and restaurants where you could find a French maitre d' and perhaps even a chef who was familiar with béchamel and sauce béarnaise instead of the ubiquitous brown gravy and mashed potatoes. I traveled by train, streetcar and hackney cab like anyone else and the only animals I saw with any frequency were pigeons. And dogs. On the leash.
And yet here I was, fighting the gearshift and the clutch that was so stiff it all but dislocated my kneecap every time I disengaged it, weaving down a godforsaken unpaved lane in the hinterlands of Wisconsin, immured in an ever-deepening layer of dust and insect parts, frustrated, angry, lost. But not simply lost: irretrievably lost. I'd seen the same farmhouse three times now and counting, the same staved-in wagon with the weeds growing through the spokes of its rusted wheels, the same wedge-faced cows in the same field, gazing at me out of the maddening nullity of their bovine eyes, and I didn't know what to do. Somehow I'd fallen into the trance of the roadway, my limbs working automatically, my brain shut down, and all I could do was turn left and then right and left again till the familiar barn loomed up in front of me and I found myself creeping past it yet again in my growling sleek road machine that had become my purgatory and my prison.
As it happened, I was in possession of a hand-drawn map sent me by one Karl Jensen, secretary for the Taliesin Fellowship, of which I was a new—and charter—member, but it showed a purported road along a purported river that didn't seem to exist. I was wondering where I'd gone wrong, the persistent whine of the engine sending up sympathetic vibrations in my head, when on what must have been my fourth pass, the scene suddenly shifted: there was the barn, there the wagon, there the cows, but now something new had entered the picture. A stout woman in a plain gray shift and apron was stationed at the side of the road, a brindled dog and two small boys at her side. When I came within sight she began windmilling her arms as if we were at sea and she'd fallen over the rail and into the green grip of the tailing waves, and before I could think I was jerking at the gearshift and riding the brake until the car came to a lurching halt some twenty feet beyond her. She waited a moment till the dust had cleared, then came up the side of the road wearing a stoic expression, the boys (they must have been seven or eight, somewhere in that range) dancing on ahead of her while the dog yapped at their heels.
"Hello!" she called out in a breathless delicate voice. "Hello!"
She was at the side of the car now, the boys shying away at the last minute to poise waist-deep in the roadside vegetation and peer up uncertainly at me. I was conscious of the distance between us, of the high-fl own seat of my Stutz automobile and the prodigious running slope of its fenders. The weeds, flecked here and there with the rust of the season, crowded the roadway, which wasn't much wider than a cart-path in any case. One of the boys reached down for a stem of grass and inserted it between his front teeth. I couldn't think of what to say.
I watched her expression as she took me in, two pale Hibernian eyes measuring my face, my clothes, the splendor of the automobile. "Are you looking for something?" she asked, but plunged right on without waiting for the answer. "Because you been up this road four times now. Are you lost"—and here she registered the truth of what her eyes had been telling her all along: that is, that I was foreign, and worse, an exotic—"or something?"
"Yes," I said, trying for a smile. "I seem to have—got myself in a bind here. I'm looking for Taliesin?" I made a question of it, though I didn't realize at the time that I was mispronouncing the name, since I'd never heard it spoken aloud. I suppose I must have given it a Japanese emphasis—Tál-yay-seen rather than the more mellifluous Tal-ee-éssin, because she just stared blankly at me. I repeated myself twice more before one of the boys spoke up: "I think he means Taliesin, Ma."
"Taliesin?" she repeated, and her features contracted round the sourness of the proper noun. "Why would you want to go there for?" she asked, her voice rising to a kind of suppressed yelp on the final (superflous) syllable, but even as she asked, the answer was settling into her eyes. Whatever the association was, it wasn't pleasant. "I have a, uh"—the car shuddered and belched beneath me—"an appointment."
The words were out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying: "Wrieto-San."
The narrowed eyes, the mouth gone rancid all over again, the dog panting, the boys gaping, insects everywhere: "Who?"
"Mr. Lloyd Wright," I said. "The architect. Builder of"—I'd pored over the Wasmuth portfolio till the pages were frayed and I knew every one of his houses by heart, but all I could think of in the extremity was the pride of Tokyo—"the Imperial Hotel."
No impression, nothing. I began to feel irritated. My English was perfectly intelligible—and I had sufficient command of it even to pronounce with little effort that knelling consonant that gave my countrymen so much trouble on the palate. "Mr. Lloyd Wright," I repeated, giving careful emphasis to the double L.
And now it was my turn for a moment of extended observation: Who was this woman? This farmwife with the unkempt boys and outsized bosom and the chins encapsulating one another like the rings of a tree? Who was she to question me? I didn't know, not at the time, but I suspected she'd never heard of the Imperial Hotel or the unearthly beauty of its design and the revolutionary engineering that enabled it to survive the worst seismic catastrophe in our history with nothing more than cosmetic repairs—for that matter, I suspected she'd never heard of my country either, or of the vast seething cauldron of the Pacific Ocean that lay between there and here. But she knew the name of Lloyd Wright. It exploded like an artillery shell in the depths of her eyes, drew her mouth down till it was closed up like a lockbox.
"I can't help you," she said, lifting one hand and dropping it again, and then she turned away and started back down the road. For a moment the boys lingered, awed by the miraculous vision of this gleaming sporty first-rate yellow-and-black automobile drawn up there on the verge of their country lane and the exotic in command of it, but then they slouched their shoulders and drifted along in her wake. I was left with the insects, the weeds and the dog, which squatted briefly in the dirt to dig at a flea behind one ear before trotting off after them.
Excerpted from The Women by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Copyright © 2009 by T.C. Boyle. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.