Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Review of Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile by Toronto journalist Tim Falconer. A slightly condensed version appeared in the Toronto Star in May 2008.

Is a car simply an appliance, a tool that performs a task, or is it a ticket to life-affirming, life-altering experiences? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Drive, Tim Falconer’s consideration of car culture. As for Falconer’s book itself, it’s more appliance than experience – dependable, sure, and stocked with information, but decidedly short on thrills.

Falconer, a Toronto journalist, wants to write about how cars have sprawled our cities, made us lazy, and complicated our lives. And he’s done plenty of research to back it up. But he also wants (quite sensibly) to bring some sense of narrative to that research, and also to understand the deep connection so many people feel with their rides. And so a road trip is born. Falconer sets out from Toronto in his ’91 Nissan Maxima and drives all the way to California, reporting on his progress and interviewing various auto enthusiasts and industry types as he goes.

Drive thus proceeds along two fronts. Falconer doles out background on everything from the history of car design to advertising through the decades to professional car racing, while theoretically using his own experiences and encounters along the way to add colour. It all reads as a bit of a grab bag, but one main theme does emerge: car culture is bad for urban planning, but folks sure do love their cars. For much of the book, these ideas are repeated more than expanded upon.

That’s one problem with Drive. Another is that the colour isn’t very, well, colourful. Falconer writes about highway traffic, about auto-themed tourist attractions (like the Cadillac Ranch, a handful of cars upended and stuck into the Texas desert), and about the ups and downs of the historic Route 66 in the southwest U.S. He also records his impressions of the various cities he passes through, rating them on how inviting they are. But while Falconer’s prose is serviceable enough, he struggles with setting a vivid scene or capturing the spark of a personality. He introduces just about everyone he encounters, for example, with a superficial physical trait or two – descriptions that range from nearly meaningless (“a small, thin, fey man with bleached blond hair”) to laughably absurd (“a small, dark-haired man who wore running shoes and jeans without a belt”).

The author himself strikes a position somewhere between amiable and altogether edgeless. He throws out general disapproval over traffic volume, suburban sprawl, and our car-enabled sedentary lifestyles. But the more specific the subject gets, the more his own opinions seem to retreat. After describing a crass TV ad that plays on parental anxieties, Falconer offers this hard-hitting analysis: “Some people found these spots offensive because they seemed to suggest that people who didn’t pony up for the expensive service didn’t care about the safety of their family.” It’s not the last time we hear from these mysterious “some people” or “more than a few people.”

As an argument, the book is strongest in its final chapter, which makes the case that downtown traffic tolls would both acknowledge the true societal cost of congestion and generate revenue for improved public transit. London, England, has tried this approach with some success. but here in Toronto, Mayor David Miller toyed with the idea and then quickly backtracked. “Miller is just one more politician without the guts to make tough decisions against cars and drivers,” writes Falconer, in a rare but welcome flash of fire.

Drive has other pleasures here and there; they come and go like rest stops on the highway. One charming section recounts a night at a family-friendly drive-in outside Picton, Ontario; another intriguingly describes the way technology is used to track traffic patterns. Overall, though, the book keeps to the middle of the road: it’s informative enough but not fascinating, entertaining enough but not captivating.

Falconer ends Drive with a playlist of rock and roll car songs, including Chuck Berry and the inevitable Springsteen but also the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.” It’s a bit of fun that seems out of place, and ironically, it reminds the reader that the book itself could have used some more rock and roll energy.

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