The Best Of Pete Egan From Cycle World Magazine
(MotorBooks, 316 Pages, $19.95)
22 Feature-length Stories
27 Column-length articles
Riepe rates this book 5 Stars (Out of 5 Stars)
If Mark Twain had ridden a motorcycle instead of piloting a steamboat, the iconic American novel Tom Sawyer would have turned out differently — and biker sage, writer, and wit Peter Egan might have had some serious competition. As it stands now, Egan remains untouchable and in a class all his own when it comes to two-wheeled story-telling. He is a master at weaving the anecdotal into warm, folksy prose, rich with imagery, history, and a genuine sense of, “What the heck...” that compels the reader to savor every line.
Many writers (including myself) muck around in the beginning of a story, trying to gain a little traction. Eagan is a master of the subtle beginning, relying on a couple of highly sophisticated techniques to lure the reader into the text. One of these is the patented “Egan Smokescreen,” where he points at one thing, and starts talking about something else. The reader smiles and nods, not willing to admit momentary confusion, then finds himself sinking into the soothing quicksand of a masterfully-written short story that is perfectly plausible from every perspective.
A good example of this literary device occurs in the first line, of the first story, in Section One of Leanings, a compilation of his best work from the pages of Cycle World Magazine. The story is titled, “Dateline Missoula,” and harkens back to 1977, the Middle Ages of modern motorcycle evolution. The line reads:
“I guess it’s better to bend a valve in Missoula than to lose your mind in Bozeman,” my wife said, patting my hand as if to console me.”
Who could argue with logic like that? Yet taken by itself, the statement is as significant as the Cheshire cat’s smile, if one had come upon it simply hanging in the air without knowing it should be attached to a cat in the first place. What follows next is a descriptive paragraph that appears to list the primary characters of a scene in a Fillini movie. It then becomes apparent that the author and his spouse are traveling on a bus. The hook is set firmly in the reader’s protruding bass-like lip with the qualifying paragraph:
“We were riding back to Madison, Wisconsin, via Greyhound, returning to a city full of prophets honored in their own time. Everyone had told me not to ride my old British twin to Seattle.”
There it is. The reader now knows a valve was bent.. That a British twin, described as old in 1977 and probably built around the signing of the Magna Carta, blew up... And that the circumstances about to be revealed in painful detail were spawned by the author’s hubris, in the face of advice to the contrary. Yet it is not possible at this point for anyone who has ever ridden an old British twin from the ‘50s or ‘60s, or who dreamed of riding across two thirds of the country on poor but whimsical judgement, or who just wanted to stretch the bonds of matrimony to the Greyhound Bus limit, to put this book down.
A second technique of Egan’s is just to drop the reader in the deep end of the pool. For example, in the piece titled, “To Ride A Vincent,” he begins: “It was the fastest bike in the world the year I was born, 1948, introduced just two weeks after my birth.” Not only is this a compelling way to start a short story, but this statement leaves one wondering if there is not some definite link between Egan’s birth the launch of the Vincent. The author makes no effort to dispel this notion and it remains something of an open question.
Egan’s stories contain a generous measure of personal experience with legendary bikes that have almost passed into mechanical mythology. He writes of Triumphs, Ducatis, Nortons, and the occasional Vincent like they were cousins who just lived down the road a piece. And when he writes about them, the reference is never about a museum where they are enshrined, but a garage, a living room, or an alley where the current owner was in the process of restoring the machine when Egan stumbled upon it. His position as an editor for Cycle World never worked against him either, as the man seems to get an unbelievably high number of invitations to ride these one of a kind bikes.
A number of Egan’s stories are thinly veiled ride reports — or details about assignments covering developments on Yamaha’s test track in Japan and Cycle Week on the Isle of Man — that are a sheer delight to read. Whether he is touring Ireland or just following the banks of the Mississippi, he weaves the color, the flavor, and the people of each locale into a narrative that sometimes wanders, but which never loses sight of the objective: to take you with him. And to make you feel a fraction of what he felt at the time.
This is my favorite passage from his motorcycle tour of Ireland:
“In the morning, Barb and I packed our luggage, which consisted of a tank bag and two soft saddlebags, and said goodbye to the O’Donovans. On our way out of Dublin we stopped to see the Book of Kells, housed in the long room of the Trinity Library. The book is a richly illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels, believed to have been written in year 800 A.D. in a monastery scriptorium. A woman ahead of me in line peered through the glass at the elaborate insular Celtic Script, intertwined with snakes and tendrils and flowers, and said in a New York accent, ‘I wundah what it says?’
“Her husband snapped back, ‘How should I know?’
“I suppressed an urge to read it for them and make it up as I went along:
“‘Gloria entered the room, flushed from her tennis lesson...’”
Yet you really get a surge of his feeling for motorcycles. His short stories depict the rapture of riding his first mini-bike, the wonder of riding Jay Leno’s Vincent Rapide, and the joy of taking a Ducati 900SS through the Alps — in terms that make it seem like all of this could just as easily have happened to you . Leanings, The Best Of Peter Egan from Cycle World Magazine (MotorBooks, 316 pages, $19.99) is a “must read” for any literate biker.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
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