While the 1939-vintage tale of a cross-country ride that spawned John Newkirk’s The Old Man and the Harley is of considerable interest, Newkirk’s telling of the story leaves much to be desired.
It is an ambitious book that attempts to weave many disparate threads together into a single narrative, and is not particularly successful in the attempt. Honestly, it would have been a challenge for a top-notch writer, and John Newkirk is not a top-notch writer.
That said, the story of the ride itself, taken by the author’s 19-year-old father on a beat-up 10-year-old Harley, is worth the read.
Jack Newkirk, the father, paid $40 for an aging bike and decided to ride it to the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition. He had never ridden a motorcycle before the day he bought it, and he knew nothing of repairing and maintaining one. But this was in the era of shade-tree mechanics and simple machinery, where anyone reasonably competent with a few tools could disassemble the engine of a car or motorcycle, diagnose a problem, and fix it on the spot. Of necessity, Jack Newkirk learned detailed lessons in this art on his trip.
The book paints an engaging picture of a bygone era, when, for example things broke and were fixed rather than discarded. Very early into the trip Jack has a flat tire, caused by the valve stem splitting. Hitchhiking ahead to a town, he finds that it would cost $2 for a new tube. On the other hand, by hitchhiking back the other direction 32 miles he can go to a welding shop and repair the valve stem, for only 50 cents. The entire endeavor takes most of a day but saving that $1.50 is worth it.
The story of John Newkirk’s old man and his Harley is, however, only one piece of what this book is about. It is also about John taking his now aged father on his own Harley to retrace a portion of the old man’s trip. Along the way it pulls in World War II flying ace “Scarsdale” Jack Newkirk, the father’s cousin, as well as Glenn Miller, Aaron Copland, and “crotalus horridus,” a rattlesnake. While tying the others into the narrative does finally succeed, crotalus horridus could have been totally omitted and it would have been a better book for the omission. Where was the editor on this project?
Another spot where the editor went AWOL came early on when Glenn Miller is introduced into the story. Newkirk writes that “By the early 1930s Glenn Miller had flunked his first college music class, blown his first audition, and found himself in New York City playing for a meager sixty-two dollars per week.”
Really? Sixty-two dollars a week was meager in the 1930s in the heart of the Great Depression? Compare that to the fact that Jack Newkirk bought his motorcycle and planned to make his 6-week ride both ways across the country, attend two major expositions, and eat, sleep, buy gasoline, and repair the motorcycle when it broke down, all on a total of $95.
The author chose to tell the story in novel form, which meant writing dialog for the characters. Good dialog is not easy to write and in this case it is wooden and the characters come across very one-dimensional. Additionally, Newkirk describes things from the point of view of his characters using modern-day language, something that just doesn’t work. Can you image young Jack Newkirk thinking to himself in 1939, as he ate the steak he’d cooked over an open campfire, that it had “a primal, minimalist taste”? Not likely.
Those are minor quibbles, however, compared to the part the author himself plays in it all. His introduction of himself places him in San Francisco earlier this decade where he chances upon some Japanese engaged in a ceremony of atonement for their country’s role in World War II. John Newkirk does not come across as at all likeable as he sneers: “But we showed them, I gloated. By God, we showed them.”
Yes, he immediately goes on to show how contrite he felt when he realized the meaning and intent of their ceremony, but let’s get real. The war ended 65 years ago and the Japanese have been our good friends and allies for more than half a century. Anyone still harboring this “we showed them” attitude, especially someone who wasn’t even born back then, has some issues they really ought to deal with.
Add to that the fact that John Newkirk apparently has a pretty lofty image of himself and the fact that, by God, he’s a biker! This bikerness of his is cringe-inducing on more than one occasion, especially considering that most people would probably put him in the category of RUB: Rich Urban Biker. But hey, he’s a biker! Don’t mess with him or he’ll give you what for.
Ostensibly about the old man’s ride on the Harley and, as the subtitle says, “A last ride through our father’s America,” The Old Man and the Harley is also a story of John Newkirk’s coming to grips with his father’s impending mortality. As the one, it is a good read. As the other, it has some potential poignancy, if you are interested in that. But if you’re not, you’ll probably wish he’d just stuck with the kid and the motorcycle.Get the Motorcycle Examiners widget and many other great free widgets at Widgetbox! Not seeing a widget? (More info)