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A classic ’57 Chevy, in wretched shape.
Its few patches of surviving paint are sun-bleached and salt-pocked and cracked like a dry lakebed. Birds have nested in its driver’s seat. Its engine, or what’s left of it, hasn’t turned over in years.
Slumped among other rusting hulks on a windswept patch of eastern North Carolina, the Chevy evokes none of the Jet Age optimism that made it the most beloved and instantly recognizable car to ever roll off an assembly line.
But to its unlikely rescuer—a felon arrested seventy-odd times and a man who’s been written off as a ruin himself—the Chevy isn’t junk. It’s a fossil of the twentieth-century American experience, of a people utterly devoted to the automobile and changed by it in uncountable ways. To Tommy Arney, that's especially so because its decrepit skin conceals a rare asset: a complete provenance, stretching back more than fifty years through twelve previous owners.
So, hassled by banks, local officials, the FBI, and his own volatile demons, the Chevy’s thirteenth owner embarks on a mission to save the car and preserve the long record of human experience it carries in its steel and upholstery.
Written for both gearheads and Sunday drivers, Earl Swift's fifth book of narrative nonfiction charts the shifting hopes and fortunes of the people who’ve gripped the car's steering wheel, throwing a light on the sturdy resilience of the American Dream and our abiding relationship with the automobile.
Praise for Auto Biography
Full of crackerjack reporting and fuel-injected mirth . . . . As nail-biting as any drugstore action-thriller.
Earl Swift’s book is so good it might spur the reader to generate car riffs, like “this book is a hot rod” or “this book drives like a dream.” Hooked on the first page, you cruise through it and are sad when it ends . . . . Superb journalism.
--Christian Science Monitor
Swift has written a book that is as good as Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief in its style, intricate structure and character development, and one that provides descriptions of processes like the three-year renovation of the '57 Chevy that match the clarity and intelligence of anything John McPhee did in The Survival of the Bark Canoe or The Control of Nature . . . . A narrative miracle. With a magician's skill, Swift transforms Tommy Arney's story into a tale of endurance and redemption.
--Michael Pearson in The Virginian-Pilot
[Swift's] easy writing style and great ear for dialog bring a very present, lively feeling to the story, and deft intercutting between the Chevy’s past and present helps to raise the stakes on its restoration. I found myself rooting for Arney and his crew as they struggled against the odds, and hoping against hope that the car and its owner got the restoration that they deserved . . . . Highly recommended.
From the opening paragraphs of Earl Swift's tour de force, you know you are in the hands of a formidable talent . . . . Fasten your seat belts and enjoy a ride that is as raucous as it is memorable.
--Madeleine Blais, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing
The story he tells of the car's owners and, in particular, anti-hero protagonist Tommy Arney, is so detailed and informed by such thorough reportage I had to use Google to make sure Swift wasn't embellishing — and I mean that as a compliment . . . . It's the best contemporary book I've read about automobiles since A.J. Baime's Go Like Hell, and I enjoyed the hell out of that.
--Matt Hardigree, Jalopnik.com
I've never met Earl Swift, but from the very first page of this book I liked him. Auto Biography is exuberant, big-spirited, and more than occasionally profound.
--Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
Auto Biography is a great read, with the cast, dialog and drama of a novel.
--Detroit Free Press
Swift has created something magical here: A narrative that interweaves current events, sin, lust, redemption, friendship, and auto restoration. You don’t have to be a car nut to dig Auto Biography, but you may be one by the time you hit Swift’s powerful last line.
--The Good Men Project
Entertaining and enlightening . . . . As it sketches Arney’s colorful past, as well as the lives of the previous owners, it becomes a distinctly 20th-century American story of sprawl and suburbia.
--Fort Worth Star-Telegram
As the Chevy's tale unfolds, you can't help but sigh through certain passages and recall your own first car. . . . An entertaining, surprisingly informative and action-packed tale.
A big, weird, heartfelt book about a badass who could give a damn whether you root for him or not.
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In bringing us such a complex cast of characters, Swift’s journalism is impeccable. His boots-on-the-ground research efforts to suss out the full . . . story of the ’57 Chevy should be on the syllabus at all the best journalism schools.