So there’s this memoir, The Long Haul, that was reviewed in The New York Times last year. I read that and checked it out from the library in hopes I could steal some of the author’s narrative tricks. And I just heard on the radio that Fresh Air is going to have the author, Finn Murphy, on the show today (Wednesday). I’d been meaning to type up my own review for a while, and now I have a reason to get it done.
The memoir genre: A novel that really happened, and how it changed you. Pretty simple specifications, really hard to execute. It’s about how it changed you, but you can’t ramble on forever about how it changed you, you have to show it in scenes that hang together as a plot, but real life doesn’t happen in a sequential plot. You need just the right balance of dramatic and emotional action, internal commentary and external events, and it’s darned hard.
One guy who’s done it is Finn Murphy, a trucker in the moving business. He tells the story of his becoming a mover and learning to excel at it. He drops out of college and makes his parents mad when he tells them he wants to do his summer job full time: packing other people’s belongings up to move them to other states.
He tells us about various shippers, that is, the person moving. Most are grumpy, but different kinds of grumpy. Some are worried everything will get broken, others just like dominating people and others yet are in terrible health or financial straits, doing a move they don’t want to.
He tells of how he puts name tags on his movers so they’ll get treated like people, and how he can stir up trouble for this shippers when they’re especially difficult. “Ma’am, would you like me pack these gay porn mags underneath the tax returns in the office?” “Sir, would you like me to pack the almost-empty vodka bottle behind the laundry soap?” He also explains how movers like to have a little fun, going through the lingerie drawer with more details than necessary, especially if the shipper is a good-looking woman, concluding with this gem of advice: “Either pack your erotica yourself or salt the lingerie draw with plastic snakes or a loaded mousetrap. This will scare and impress the movers; always a good option.”
The first part of the book is his introduction to the moving business and then his becoming a successful mover in the early 1980s, getting assignments and working 73 hours in a week (he says he likes it) and bringing in the bucks. He then stops trucking for a decade and a half and starts again, with little explanation of what happened in between. A divorce? But this is memoir, which allows gaps like that. Coming back in his 50s, he’s now called The Great White Mover just because so few whites are left in the business, and he’s a handsome older gent, which leads to one story of a shipper who’s a neglected gorgeous housewife. (I’ll just let that one linger.)
He alternates between telling stories of memorable shippers to explaining the trucking business, and the changes that occurred with deregulation in the 1980s. In the 2010s, he’s astonished when he’s stopped at a rest area in Kansas during a massive thunderstorm, waiting it out in the lobby with a FedEx driver, when the FedEx driver gets a call from Mumbai. It’s the company, wanting to know why he’s stopped. Not the open-road cowboy independence that appeals to most truckers.
In my own writing, I’d like to have a lively yarn like he does that leads you from one shipper to the next, both with humor and frustration. And I’d like to open the secret world to the reader the way he does. My two books I’m working on have either someone in danger of dying most of the time, or characters actually dying… and it’s not as much fun. But that’s my slog.
Ok, that’s my blogpost for today. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s Fresh Air to hear Finn!