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Book Notes: Trucker Hauls a Sharp Memoir Into Upper Valley

  • Finn Murphy has had wrapped a trailer to promote his book. He's driving the truck on his book tour, which stops in Norwich on Nov. 8, 2017.

  • Finn Murphy will read from The Long Haul, his lively memoir of his life as a trucker, at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, at 7 p.m. (Kevin Snyder photograph)



Valley News Staff Writers
Friday, November 03, 2017

There’s something bracing about an account of a milieu from the inside. Most reporters, even those who write books, are on the outside looking in. Many insiders aren’t great, or often even good, writers.

So a good book by someone who knows his subject down to the finest details, who has really lived it, is a rare thing. The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road, by Finn Murphy, falls into this narrow category, and it’s a compelling read.

Murphy, who grew up in Connecticut’s tony Fairfield County and dropped out of Colby College after three years to go on the road, is scheduled to read at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday. He’ll be driving his big rig, with a trailer emblazoned with the book’s title, to the Upper Valley for the reading.

The Long Haul is a timely book, not for what it has to say about trucking, but for Murphy’s level-headed attitude and for his observations about the nature of work in America. He comes off as a true independent, someone who can speak his mind free of the partisan language that seems to hem the nation in. Here’s a representative passage about how badly Murphy and some of his helpers are treated by their customers:

Dehumanizing service workers looks to me to be mostly about insecurity. My helpers are almost all Hispanic, and I don’t see any profound cultural chasm between an immigrant from Mexico and a middle-class white American. Your standard-issue Mexican or Brazilian is a hardworking Christian who shares a Western historical experience, speaks a Romance language, uses the same alphabet and numbering system, and has similar aspirations. Just because someone doesn’t have a grasp of English doesn’t mean they don’t have a grasp on disparagement.

Murphy, who started work in the trucking business in 1976, also has a refreshingly clear-eyed view of himself. In the middle of the book, he compares himself to another trucker, less well-off than he is, that he encounters in Maine. “What he didn’t have, and what I had in abundance, was anger,” Murphy writes. “I had it when I started out as a mover, and I had it when I became a driver. I had brilliantly managed to select a career where frustration was the norm. That allowed me to justify being angry all the time.”

This passage is part of a long, digressive set piece at the heart of the book, in which Murphy traverses New England, picking up small loads to transport to Florida, where he unloads them one by one. Murphy has worked in trucking solely as a mover, a subspecialty that pays far better than driving ordinary freight, but that requires dealing with the people whose stuff he’s moving. A high-end mover like Murphy earns a solid six-figure income.

The Long Haul is a quick read, maybe too quick; I found myself wanting to know more about Murphy. He took a long hiatus from trucking that forms a gap in the book. I wish he’d written a bit more about those years, even just to sketch them in. But that might have detracted from his focus on trucking. Maybe he’s got another book in him.

Finn Murphy will read from and sign copies of The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Norwich Bookstore. The event is free, but seating is limited. Call 802-649-1114 to reserve a seat.

Invitation to Speculation

Books like The Long Haul, accounts of working-class life in late-empire America, have occupied a thick wedge of the national debate pie chart over the past year. Exhibit A is probably Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up poor in a location too perfectly named for literature: Middletown, Ohio.

What seems clear from these books is that many of the nation’s best-educated and most successful people have little experience of working class life. It was easy for the Trump campaign to demonize “coastal elites” because there is a gulf between the coasts and flyover country, and between people who have broken through to lead successful lives and those who haven’t. It seems only right that readers should at least pick up books about Ohio’s rural poverty or life as a trucker. Better still that readers get out of their bubbles and get to know some working-class people.

There’s a countervailing trend in reading, though, and I wonder whether it’s somewhat less salutary. Over the past year, people have been turning to classics of what is now called speculative fiction to try to understand our maximum leader’s penchant for totalitarian rhetoric. Sales of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 have seen a significant jump. Both of those novels tell of brutal, authoritarian societies that crush individual freedom.

I wonder whether readers are turning either toward nonfiction or speculative fiction, or whether the same readers might be looking at both in an effort to make sense of the country both as it is and as they fear it could be.

Speculative fiction got a boost last week from Dartmouth College: The Neukom Institute for Computational Science has established a “global award program” for new works of speculative fiction in drama and by established and first-time authors of literary fiction.

Overseen by Dan Rockmore, a professor of computer science and mathematics who has given considerable attention to the humanities, the three prizes of $5,000 each are meant to reward writing “featuring themes relevant to computational work or computing,” the college said in announcing the program. The first of the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards will be judged by panels of writers and scientists and announced early next year. The winning play will be performed as a reading next summer.

As a reader, I confess I’d rather see more about life on the ground than speculation about what the future might hold. But the Neukom Institute (it’s pronounced “NUKE-em”) has a forward-looking brief.

“Many of us have read, and continue to read, the greats of the genre, but there also seems to be a huge uptick in people writing speculative fiction today,” Rockmore said in a statement. “This award program is meant to recognize artists who inspire us to think deeply and carefully about the future that computational science and ‘the digital’ are creating; the best of this kind of work is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.”

All work published since June 1, 2015, is eligible for consideration. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.

The Spoken Word(s)

Vermont author Michael Caduto shares tales and songs and dances on the theme of “Native American Thanksgiving: Completing the Circles of Life,” at Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library on Saturday afternoon at 2. Admission is free.

Verse-a-tility

The Norman Williams Public Library invites poets at all levels of experience and poetry devotees alike to its monthly “Recite!” session on Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 7:30.

Anyone planning to recite their own or favorite poems should register in advance by visiting the library during weekday business hours or email info@recitewoodstockvt.com. Listeners also are welcome to the recitations, to which admission is free.

The Scottish Club of the Twin States celebrates the heritage of Robert Burns at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction on Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. The annual Burns Night includes recitations of Burns’ poems and a musical program before ending with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

The formalities begin at 6:30 with pipers ushering in the haggis. During dinner, the club will give the Toast to the Immortal Memory. To reserve tickets ($45 for members, $49 for others), call Anne Shivas at 802-649-2693.

Talk Amongst Yourselves

The Nevil Shute Society of Hanover’s Howe Library discusses one of the author’s maritime-related novels and two of his short stories during their monthly meeting on Saturday afternoon at 2. The book is The Seafarers and stories are Down the Humber in a Motor Cruiser and In the Uttermost Parts of the Sea. To learn more, email Laura Schneider at lschneider@gm.slc.edu.

The classics book-discussion group at Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library tackles J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man on Nov. 11 at 10:30 a.m. To learn more, call 802-457-2295.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com and at 603-727-3207.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.