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Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream Hardcover – May 6, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: It Books (May 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062282662
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062282668
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,070 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Earl Swift
Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash, author of This Dark Road to Mercy and A Land More Kind than Home, interviews Earl Swift about Auto Biography.

Wiley Cash (WC): The star of Auto Biography is a particular ’57 Chevy that passes through a number of lives that you chronicle beautifully. But the car’s co-star is Tommy Arney, a hard-nosed ex- and future convict and the car’s current owner. Tommy’s incredible history of family trouble, violence, and survival is threaded throughout the book. How did you first meet Tommy?

Earl Swift (ES): One evening in December 1993, my editors at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, dispatched me to the Body Shop, a go-go bar Tommy owned: He’d taken the state to court over a regulation forbidding the sale of mixed drinks in the presence of a woman’s bare midriff or buttocks, both of which were in ample supply at his club and the biggest draw for his clientele. He prevailed in the dispute, so I was assigned to interview him. I enjoyed the visit thoroughly - if you were with Tommy in those days, you were either having a great time or getting your ass whipped - and I left the meeting impressed that this bear of a man, whose formal education had ended in fifth grade and who’d long danced along the law’s ragged edge, was a really smart, engaging fellow with a great sense of humor.

WC: Tommy is definitely a hero-outlaw like Tony Soprano or Billy the Kid. This type of figure feels distinctly American to me. Do you believe Tommy fits that role?

ES: I do see him that way. The young Tommy was a lethal fellow, with an explosive temper and a chip on his shoulder the size of a tectonic plate. But he lived by a personal code: Few of his victims weren’t on the prowl for trouble. And alongside the violent and mean Tommy Arney was an utter charmer, generous and funny, straight-shooting and smart.

WC: Auto Biography follows this ’57 Chevy through a number of lives before it lands in Tommy’s possession, and it follows the evolution of our nation through so many important eras: Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan years, etc. Which owner and era interested you the most as you were writing about him or her?

ES: I guess every journalist looks back most fondly on those stories that required the greatest effort or ingenuity to land, and in that respect writing about the car’s sixth owner, Mary Ricketts, brought me particular satisfaction. I interviewed Mary several times in 2004 and spoke with her occasionally in the years that followed, but it was only after her death in 2011 that I found out — at her memorial service — that she’d suffered an aneurysm years before I met her, and that the Mary I’d met was nothing like the Mary who’d owned the Chevy. So I set out to reconstruct her as she was in the 1980s. It took a few months, but with tremendous help from her friends and family, I was able to do it.

WC: Auto Biography reminds me of a frame tale like Canterbury Tales or a film like “The Red Violin”. The frame of the story is the life of this single car, but the story’s heart is the lives through which it passes. Is there a book or a film that inspired you to structure Auto Biography in this particular way?

ES: What inspired me to attempt this was my own automotive past. I’ve owned old cars and bad cars, and a few cars that were both old and bad, and while cursing them under my breath would sometimes find myself wondering about the poor saps who had drove these wrecks before me. I’ve also had a few great cars that I’ve sold too soon, and I’ve contemplated their fates since — wondering whether their new homes are as loving as the one I provided.

From Booklist

This is a fascinating dual biography of Tommy Arney—described as a rough customer, which is putting it mildly—and of a 1957 Chevrolet which is in Arney’s possession when the book opens. In addition to owning a North Carolina strip club, Arney runs an auto-junkyard-cum-used-car-lot (neither is quite an adequate description). When not in major legal or financial difficulty, Arney—an informally educated, erratic, but remarkably well-informed individual, articulate both in profane and more standard English—and his remarkable crew perform herculean work (meticulously described here) in restoring automobiles. The author tells Arney’s story deftly and with great, often raw, humor, and it rarely loses momentum. The tale of the ’57 Chevy’s passage from owner to owner until purchased (and laboriously prepared to be sold) by Arney is fittingly contextualized within the central place of the automobile (in particular, this automobile, a classic) in American culture. --Mark Levine

More About the Author

Longtime journalist Earl Swift wrote for newspapers in St. Louis, Anchorage, and for 22 years in Norfolk, where his long-form stories for The Virginian-Pilot were nominated five times for a Pulitzer Prize. Since 2012, he's been a fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

His latest book--AUTO BIOGRAPHY: A CLASSIC CAR, AN OUTLAW MOTORHEAD, AND 57 YEARS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM--was released in early May to immediate critical praise.

He's also the author of four other books of narrative nonfiction--THE BIG ROADS, a lively 2011 history of the interstate highway system and its effects on the nation it binds; WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers, for which he accompanied an army archaeological team into the jungles of Laos in search of a helicopter crew shot down thirty years before (2003); JOURNEY ON THE JAMES, the story of a great American river and the largely untold history that has unfolded around it (2001); and a 2007 collection of his stories, THE TANGIERMAN'S LAMENT.

His early titles will soon be available as e-books.

Swift is the father of a 20-year-old daughter, Saylor, and is engaged to the sprightly and popular Amy Walton of Virginia Beach.

Customer Reviews

This reader wishes them both well.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Americana and our folklore.(
V. Williams
This book really makes me want to get it done.
Kindle Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By JPfromOH VINE VOICE on June 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Earl Swift's Auto Biography is a great example of primary source reporting in action. It also happens to be a fascinating interweaving of the story of Tommy Arney, the "outlaw motorhead" of the books subtitle and the story of a 1957 Chevrolet, one of the most iconic American automobiles in history. Swift traces Arney's rough and tumble life over the same 57-year period as that of one particular '57 Chevy wagon. Although the life of a school dropout turned classic car dealer, strip club owner, restaurant owner, and cancer survivor might not seem to have much to do with the automobile, the two stories are beautifully interwoven. This book expands upon newspaper articles that Swift researched and wrote over the course of several years. Swift presents the story of each owner of the '57 Chevy. Ultimately, what emerges is the story of life in America over the past 57 years, the ups and downs, the struggles, the heartbreak, as well as a peek into the psychology of classic car ownership. Highly recommended!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Auto Biography is about a classic 1957 Chevrolet station wagon that is being rebuilt by the owner of a used car lot (don't dare call it a junkyard), one Tommy Arney, a violent, foul-mouthed, operator who deals in various businesses such as go-go bars and real estate. Author Earl Swift has managed to trace the ownership of the car in question all the way back to its original owner. He tells the story of the car through the people who have owned the car. It's a crazy idea, and you hope that a half a century of history as told through such a quirky lens will be revealing in some way, that it will be a slice of America.

But throughout, it's really the story of Tommy Arney, now in his late fifties, slightly less violent than he used to be, but still as menacing. The first story Swift tells about Arney is Arney's recollection of a long ago sailor bar melee in which he was approached by a cop with a K-9 growling and ready to rumble. Arney warned the cop not to set the dog on him or he would "[m]uck the dog up." The dog attacked, Arney grabbed the dog by the neck, choked it until it passed out, then beat the cop with his own German shepherd.

How can a car compete with a character like that? And yet, in Swift's telling, Arney is something of a charmer as well as a Tasmanian devil. Well, I'll have to take Swift's word for that. Arney's business dealings were so corrupt that during the course of the Chevy restoration, the FBI was preparing to indict Arney for bank fraud. Meanwhile, Arney, while not as crazy violent as he once was, still abused his friends, was cheating on his wife throughout their thirty year marriage, neglected his kids when they were children, and when they were adults, got them to co-sign fraudulent bank loans.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Emma Wellington VINE VOICE on August 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Auto Biography is a wonderful blending of Tommy Arney’s (the "outlaw motorhead") life story, and the story of one specific 1957 Chevrolet. Swift traces Arney's knockdown, drag out life over the same 57-year period as that of the Chevy. Although the life of a dropout turned classic car dealer, strip club and restaurant owner, and cancer survivor might not seem to fit with this classic car, the two stories blend seamlessly. Through the story we not only get to know Arney, but we learn about modern American history, society and psychology. Whether or not you love old cars, the story is so interesting and compelling that I believe most everyone who likes a good book will really enjoy this story.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Howard Weaver on July 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Nobody but a master storyteller could handle all the personalities, events and engrossing details that make up Auto Biography, Earl Swift’s new book about a 1957 Chevy and so much more.

Fortunately, Swift is just such a master.

The book encompasses far more than the ’57 wagon and the dozen owners he traces back to its first sale from a coastal Virginia showroom. It also paints a vivid portrait of the larger than life brawler, strip club owner and car dealer whose story unfolds alongside it. In less skillful hands the multitudinous details might easily scramble and unwind, but Swift’s sure touch never falters. The stories are richly reported, splendidly told and perpetually engaging.

So deftly does the portrait of the outsized Tom Arney unfold that I never doubted the outrageous details of fistfights, strippers and court cases that define him. I even believed that he once took a bite out of an opponent, chewed and swallowed and then asked his buxom companion for a toothpick.

As often happens in finely honed storytelling, Swift’s formidable reporting and writing skills fade into the background to leave the story in sharp relief, page after page. What’s more, the stories in the foreground are also firmly rooted in a rich understanding of cars and American culture, a portrait destined to remain on bookshelves as long as people are interested in the America of my youth.

I especially appreciate Swift’s careful attention to detail and accuracy. As the exhaustive notes at the end of the book make clear, these are people, events and facts that Swift knew, saw and experienced. The detail is the product not of imagination but journalistic effort, an almost unimaginable commitment to getting this story right—and in getting all of it.
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