Can you quote a lot of writers? I mainly can’t.
Sure, I remember some Shakespeare from when I was in high school, and everyone knows the first part of the opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities, but I’ve never really been one for literary quotes. I generally try to stay away from other people’s words and to create my own phrases with, it must be admitted, varying degrees of success.
There are a few writers I can quote verbatim. I’m always telling anyone who’ll listen that the opening line of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is the greatest opening line in all of literature. I can also, by dint of having read it a lot, quote great chunks of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series. But, despite reading dozens of books every year, that’s it.
There’s one exception, though, and I bet most readers of this blog won’t have heard of him. In my opinion, one of the best writers of the past 40 years – in fact, possibly the greatest writer still living from the point of view of craft – isn’t a famous novelist. In fact, he isn’t even a writer of fiction.
He’s a journalist… well, sort of.
Peter Egan was a long time columnist for Road & Track and Cycle World, two magazines which are not noted for their dedication to literary criticism. While he often got drafted in to write features for those two publications, his true genius was in teaching us about life.
Not his life, not even particularly the life of a lifelong gear head and car and bike nut, but about life itself. I am tempted to say that he used his experiences with an eclectic assortment of malfunctioning machinery (much of it British) as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of daily existence but if I were to write something and mindlessly pretentious as that, I fear the man himself would never forgive me. So I won’t. I’ll just say that, if Mark Twain had owned an endless string of cars and bikes (and guitars) and lived in the latter half of the 20th century, he’d write about the same as Peter Egan. Except Twain would be emailing Egan for advice.
Yes. The man is really that good. Folksy and self-deprecating but with a solid literary background underlying (and belying when he isn’t careful) this image, the prose makes you want to read until you drop, and then keep reading, propped on the hospital bed on one elbow while the nurses keep saying that if you don’t get some rest, you’ll lose the other kidney.
His collected columns come in two series. The Side Glances series collects his work for Road & Track, while the Leanings books are his columns for Cycle World.
I recently read the first in the Side Glances books (I have volumes 2 and 3, but this one had been hard to find on Amazon until recently) and, though I’d already read and reread many of the columns in the magazine itself, was once more transported by the sheer truth of Egan’s way of looking at the world. The cars are, very nearly, secondary, but if you have any tendency to go out and buy old cars to restore, stay away from these books. They will lead you down questionable financial paths.
I only bought the first of the Leanings books because I like Egan’s writing. I didn’t really care for motorcycles when I started reading this one. And yet, I have recently finished the third volume of the series… and I suddenly find that, though extremely unlikely to go out and buy a brand new sportbike, I wouldn’t mind learning to ride on an old Norton. Such is the power of this guy’s writing.
I always forget to name him among the two or three writers I most admire. He’s not a writer of fiction, after all, and I don’t really find journalists of any kind inspiring in the least. But this is an exception. Peter Egan is truly great and only his very specific, and highly non-literary niche has kept him secret.
I know most of you are shaking your heads right now and saying “Bondoni has finally lost it. Mind you, he was always close to the edge, but now he’s fallen, kicking and screaming, right off.” All I can say in my defense is that you’ll have to trust me. Find one of these books. Read even one or two columns (they take about five minutes to read).
You can come back and thank me any time you want.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His latest novel, released in 2018, is The Malakiad.