Friday, November 25, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Wheels" by Arthur Hailey


OK, it's a 40-year-old book. One that even hardcore Arthur Hailey fans, if such a thing exists, have forgotten that he wrote. But it isn't very good.

If you'd asked me to rate it when I was about halfway through, I'd have said it was an 8 on a scale of 1–10. Flat, two-dimensional characters and so-so dialogue, but it seemed to make a sincere stab at capturing the zeitgeist of the American auto industry in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Cheesy fun, but a page turner. 

Then something went wrong. I can't say exactly when, but it definitely lost its way. Characters that seemed to be natural foils to the automotive titans—like a thinly veiled Ralph Nader doppelgänger named EmersonVale—were introduced on the first page, and then never referred to again after the third chapter. Scenarios rife with drama—the highly anticipated new car has a potentially fatal engineering flaw that can only be fixed by either redesigning the whole thing or by adding a crucial part that adds significantly to the cost of manufacturing each vehicle—were just kind of solved there and then, with no ongoing suspense. (They added the part.)

When you consider the complete overhaul that the American car industry underwent in the 1970s, anyone with an ounce of perspicacity would have seen it coming. Except Hailey. He seemed to see nothing but great things coming for Detroit in the 70s. ("White flight"? What's that?)

Out of 10? 5. And that's probably generous.

Is "Hotel" any better?