Thursday, 2 March 2017

Good Book: I See By My Outfit

By dint of random good fortune I just read I See By My Outfit: Cross-Country by Scooter—an Adventure, by Peter S. Beagle. This inexplicably obscure American masterpiece is basically Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets On the Road by way of Three Men in a Boat, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who appreciated those classics. (I commend it even harder to those who couldn't get through the first two. Beagle utterly lacks the pretence of Kerouac or Pirsig.)

In 1963, Peter and his childhood best friend, artist Phil Sigunick, set out from New York City for the Bay Area on motor scooters. Yeah, that's not a typo: scooters. Weird-looking Heinkel Tourists, from the days when former Nazi aircraft manufacturers were still doghoused by punitive restrictions.

If a cute little city-boy scooter doesn't strike you as the tool for the task, welcome to the adventure. (Past tense form; in the present we call it "catastrophe".)

But Phil and Pete are 24 and invincible, and the tale that ensues is simultaneously hilarious, insightful, and nostalgic. Beagle's tart, economical prose foreshadows the power that will soon make him a cultural icon. A few years later he will write The Last Unicorn (an event subtly hindsighted by his obsession with Tolkien, whose work he has to define for 1964 readers) and become a lion of literary fantasy. But that's even farther ahead than California at this point.

In fact, lots of things are ahead of him, but he's trying not to think about that. For the moment his life is a sequence of picnic grounds and diners; fleabag hotels, pawnshops, and borrowed guitars; breakdowns and rainstorms; eerily prescient cow town parochials; and more than one Cold War cop with little clue where his authority ends – or interest.

Along the way we get pithy, almost poetic descriptions of little towns along old Route 40, some of which have hardly changed in half a century. (I checked on Google Street View.) Pop-culture call-outs recreate the ecosystem of the period. Together with bookish literary references they feed the capital Internet scavenger hunt that signals a great book.

And through it all, the simple joy of being a brash young twentysomething, smart-mouthed and game, and somehow, in Beagle's case, aware of it. His breezy, funny patter is the sort of thing you can only produce – or get away with – at that age. The fact that he and Sigunick constantly remind each other to act like smart-mouthed twentysomethings – because that's their calculated schtick – is at once endearing, and a little surrealistic.

Outfit does suffer from an excess of voice in places, particularly in the repartee between the boys, which can become tedious when it pokes too long in the inside-jokey territory of childhood friends. Fortunately, Beagle's tight pacing limits these interludes to a fleeting irritation.

Some readers have also fingered the riders' casual misogyny, amounting mostly to failure to take women seriously. Beagle himself reportedly winces at those moments now, which as a fellow old man I can well imagine. But their tone is par for young stallions in 1963, and so they are a lesson in their own right. (Full disclosure: my friends and I talked similarly – out of female earshot – twenty years later.)

For the rest, my main complaint is incompleteness. The book badly needs an epilogue, maybe two – one in-period, the other retrospective. And for a book about an artist, it's frustratingly unillustrated. Why don't we have those gouaches Phil's always executing, in parking lots and beside bridges? (Both oversights may have been corrected in subsequent editions; I read the original, with the cover above.)

One thing is certain: I See By My Outfit deserves to be much more widely read. It's a beloved classic waiting fifty years and counting to happen. If you like road stories, or Americana, or social history, or just effervescent, youthful prose, this one's for you.

I nearly cried when it was over, just because there was no more to read.

Update, 7 March 2017: I've just stumbled over this 2012 Chronogram profile of Phil and his wife Judy, in which occurs the following line: "He is also a primary character in Peter S. Beagle’s classic cross-country travelogue, I See By My Outfit, for which he is creating a soon-to-be-published series of illustrations." I hope this means that my above speculation is correct, and that a recent re-issue of Outfit now includes adequate, dare we hope generous, graphic contributions by the book's co-protoganist. I mean, c'mon. Dude shares top billing in this trip, and he's a recognised artist. Isn't this the definition of a "no-brainer"?.

Heinkel Tourist 175, Bj. 1956 1a
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