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“I wasn’t so much creating the story as becoming the tube through which it flowed."

 

Burt Levy:  World's Fastest Novelist Part II

by Ziva Allen

An excerpt from Burt Levy’s cult-classic motorsports novel The Last Open Road:

The hard part—always—was finding competent, reliable mechanics who could actually fix the damn cars. Let me explain to you how it is with automobile mechanics. I personally divvy them up into three distinct categories. First off, you’ve got your basic Shadetree Butchers. Old Man Finzio was a Butcher, even though he ran a gas station for a living. But most Butchers are home-garage amateurs who only bring their cars to a professional after they’ve already made a godawful mess out of whatever they were trying to fix in the first place.  Butchers can be counted on to snap studs, shear bolts, strip threads, wedge bearing races in cockeyed and turn every electrical problem into a stinking, smoldering glob of molten plastic and charred insulation. No self-respecting mechanic likes working around a Butcher, and cleaning up after one is even worse.

One giant step from the Butcher is the Parts Replacer. Parts Replacers know their way around an automobile all right, but they don’t comprehend at all how car stuff really operates. To them, every mechanical component is like a sealed vault filled with some kind of rare, magical pudding that makes it work. So they invariably start yanking off old parts and throwing new ones at a problem until it either goes away or the car’s owner declares bankruptcy. God certainly must have loved Parts Replacers, because he made so many of them.

And then you’ve got the Fixers. The maestros. The Real McCoy. Fixers can diagnose a hiccup in your carburetor or a death rattle in your crankcase just like a medical doctor, and then go in so slick and clean that when they’re done, you can’t even tell the car’s been worked on. Except that it runs better than ever. A Fixer can even make parts. “It’s all done, Mr. Jones. The choke cable was sticking because it was going over-center, so I made a new bracket to bring it in at a better angle.”

Those guys are hard to find. And even harder to keep.

booksweb360x258If you recall, when we last spoke with vintage racer, track-day instructor, award-winning motorsports writer and self-proclaimed World’s Fastest Novelist “BS” Levy, our conversation abruptly ended when Burt announced across the great cellular-service divide that he was just about home from his weekend at Road America and had to get off the phone.  Right.  Sure.  He could have been anywhere between Elkhart Lake and home!  Hell, he may never even have left the damn race track (which I’m sure wouldn’t have bothered him in the least).  And how would I have known the difference anyway?  But that’s okay.  I don’t really think that Burt was trying to get rid of me. Even if I was grilling him with question after question about his unusual and unlikely motorsports career.  But Burt was actually quite patient and gracious with his time.  Then again, it’s not like he was going anywhere (except back home to the Chicago suburbs) and you quickly come to realize that he really likes talking about what he’s done, where he’s been and what’s coming next.  And I was thankful for that.  And you will be, too, seeing as how for the next several minutes (okay, maybe more than several…buckle up!) you will be entertained with more of Burt’s ups, downs, trials, tribulations, and career morphs.

We’re going to start with a discussion of the excerpt from The Last Open Road featured at the top of this page.  I loved that section the moment I read it.  And I have to give myself a pat on the back, because when I told Burt it was about my favorite passage from the book and asked if we could reprint it for this article, he laughed.  “That’s actually our test-drive page!” he told me. “Whenever I’m at a race track and someone wanders past who has never read my books, I’ll ask them, ‘have you ever worked on cars?’  And if they say ‘yes,’ I’ll say, ‘Then test drive page 29’ [the section shown above].  It works amazingly well, and we sell a lot of books because of it.”  As Burt says of this passage, and as I have discovered myself, “You really don’t need to know any of the characters or any of the background, and the passage gives you a real taste of Buddy’s narrative and perspective; the way he tells the story and the way he describes things.”  As an avid reader I have found that, ultimately, it’s never really about the setting, plot or premise (although those are obviously quite important), but rather it’s about the narrator’s voice and perspective and the depth and believability of the characters.  Because without them, the premise and the plot line fall flat. If you don’t care about the characters, you usually don’t care about the story.  Burt’s strength is in his knowledge of motorsports as both personal adventure and history, and also in his gift for characters and character development.  Through narrator Buddy Palumbo and the rest of the cast—many of them real people who raced and won (or lost) back in the open-road days of the early fifties, Burt brings you “to a time that truly recaptures the America from before there was an endless slap of interstate lined with gas stations, Holiday Inns and McDonalds.  Back then you drove cross-country on two-lane roads and stayed in mom-and-pop tourist courts.  And when you got hungry, you stopped on the Main Street of some small town and ate your lunch at the little diner across the street from the village green or courthouse.”  Burt vaguely remembers that America from when he was a little boy traveling to Florida or New York or Colorado in the back seat of his father’s Pontiac.  “I wanted to re-capture that America for the people who never got a chance to see it.”  As Burt explains about The Last Open Road in a story about his adventures in the publishing world in his A Potside Companion anthology:

This wasn’t going to be another lame racing potboiler about some handsome hero driver who can win in almost anything or the aging one who’s lost his nerve or finds no meaning in life. No, this was going to be a genuine, historically and mechanically accurate racing story from the viewpoint of Buddy Palumbo, a blue-collar kid just out of high school, coming of age in the Eisenhower Fifties.  A real, three-dimensional kid with family problems and girlfriend problems and the same, incurable and unshakeable case of Car Lust I knew so well from my own experience. Buddy’s dad is a union shop steward at a big chemical plant over in Newark, and wants the kid to take a nice, safe, solid union job with a secure future and plenty of benefits.  But all Buddy wants to do is hang around the corner Sinclair station and fix busted cars. And spend a little time with the station owner’s niece, July Finzio, a wannabe fashion illustrator who waits tables at the Doggy Shake burger restaurant down the street, cleans up the office at the Sinclair a few days each week, and whose long term prospects aren’t much better than Buddy’s.

Says Burt, “When I first wanted to do a racing novel, the temptation was to make it about a driver.  But drivers are all full of crap.  I mean, they not only lie to other people but they also lie to themselves.  It’s part of the addiction.  So I thought: why not try to write the story from a race mechanic’s standpoint because a race mechanic can really be honest.  So I set out to have a narrator who, although he’s the guy telling the story, he’s almost like a fly on the wall in terms of what’s going on with the characters who are actually racing.  I thought it would be neat to have his perspective.”  Burt calls his writing style “first person barstool.”  As he explains: “If I do it right, it sounds like Buddy’s sitting right there on the next barstool, telling you how things are going in his life and spinning a few racing stories in the bargain.  Off the cuff, you know?” 

So how did it all get started?  “I had wanted to write a racing novel forever because I’d never read one that I liked or that captured that life the way I knew it.  Initially it was just going to be a history of the early days of America and road racing, when a bunch of wealthy black-sheep types from prominent families were running those early races on closed-off public roads around places like Bridgehampton, Long Island and Watkins Glen, New York, and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.” Initially, Burt invented Buddy “just as the guy to tell the story.  But before I was even half-way through the book, the life of Buddy and my fictional characters started to become more important to me than the history I started out to tell.” Years later, on a panel with some other authors, a very successful novelist told him: “when your characters start doing things that surprise you, that’s when you’re really on to something.” And that’s exactly what happened. “I wasn’t so much creating the story as becoming the tube through which it flowed.  I don’t know exactly how that happens, but every fiction writer I know agrees that it does.”

It took Burt eight years to finish The Last Open Road.  “I had no idea how to write a book.  Just like you have no idea how to go racing until the day you just jump in and try to do it.  And there were times I felt like giving up.  I’d say to myself: ‘you know you’ll never finish this.  Who the heck are you kidding?”  But Burt’s perseverance paid off.  Not only did he complete the book, but there are now four sequels in The Last Open Road series (plus a fifth and sixth on the way) plus the Potside Companion short-story anthology mentioned above (which, if you’re a racer, is side-splittingly hilarious).  He also pens award-winning columns and feature stories for Vintage Motorsport magazine (“it’s just a transparent attempt to write myself behind the wheel of some really neat old racecars that I could never even dream of affording”) and you wonder how he finds time to squeeze it all in.  But over the years, he says he’s become a more efficient writer (after all, how else do you become the World’s Fastest Novelist?) and now he finishes his novels in about one to three years.  “If I’m lucky, I’ll get five pages down on a good day.  Then there’s the editing process, where you go over and over and over a description or a line of dialog until it (hopefully) sounds just right and captures the moment.  Just the other day, I spent the whole morning working on two lines of dialog.  I need to be more like Stephen King,” Burt chuckles. “He really knows how to crank stories out!”

I asked Burt who his favorite character is in the books.  “I love all of my characters of course. They’re my kids.  Even if some of them are kind of scumbags orlevy6285x360 stuck-up or mean-spirited or whatever.  But everybody seems to love Buddy!  He’s a really nice guy and a really good mechanic, and he lives his life kind of wandering back-and-forth between wide-eyed innocence and savvy street smarts.  In The Last Open Road series, the most colorful characters are probably Cal Carrington and Big Ed Baumstein.  Cal is the rich friend of Buddy’s who never has a nickel in his pocket.  He’s a really talented driver but he’s also a spoiled-brat kid from a wealthy and uncaring family.  Cal is lean, handsome, graceful, confident and athletic, and driving race cars fast comes very naturally to him.  But he’s also a cocky S.O.B. and he never has any money in his pockets even though he lives in a palatial mansion they continually refer to as Castle Carrington.  You know the type.  So when Buddy introduces him into the story, he says ‘it never seemed to bother Calvin that he never had anything but lint in his pocket.  But maybe that’s because it was 100% cashmere lint.’  And then there’s Big Ed Baumstein, who can’t drive a lick.  Oh, he loves neat cars and buys a lot of them—when he sees his first Jaguar XK120, he decides on the spot that he can’t live without one—but he’s not a racecar driver at heart.  Or by skill or temperament.  Even so, he winds up being sort of a surrogate father to Buddy because they share a love for fast sports cars and Big Ed respects the way Buddy takes care of them.  And Buddy needs that, because his real father is the other kind of jag (if you know what I mean).  So Big Ed becomes sort of a mentor to Buddy when it comes to the world of business, friendships and life lessons.  And then there’s Butch Bohunk.  Butch is the mechanic at the Sinclair station where Buddy helps out after he graduates from high school, and Butch is the guy who really starts teaching Buddy about mechanics and the art of doing it the right way, diagnosing problems and learning how to fix cars.”  Right out of the gate, Burt introduces you to these colorful, true-to-life characters in a way that has you feeling like you’ve met them all before. 

But writing The Last Open Road was just the tip of the iceberg, and getting his books published has been an uphill battle for Burt and his family.  “Unfortunately, the quality of your work and finding an audience are two completely different things.  My first book was turned down by damn near every publisher in New York.  See, in this country, most of the publishing world lives in Manhattan.  And Manhattan is not a car town.  In fact, you’re crazy to own a nice car in Manhattan. I discovered that New York publishers can tend to be dismissive about things they don’t know about and moreover don’t think are worth knowing.  And they didn’t really grasp the difference between road-racing people and the folks who are attracted to drag racing or stock car roundy-rounds.  Apparently the publishing houses think that “car nuts” don’t read, period.”  (You did just read that last sentence, didn’t you?).

So what do you do when every major New York publishing house has rejected your first novel?  If you’re Burt Levy, you and your wife take out a second mortgage and publish it yourselves.  And then you make “Potty Posters” to hang up in all the porta-johns and over the urinals at racetracks where you’re selling your books.  Burt’s wife Carol (40 years and counting) came up with the genius idea of hanging posters in racetrack johns all across the country.  Hard to miss!  And a captive audience, to boot!  This may be a long way from being interviewed by Jay Leno in his garage (see Part 1 in our June issue), but that’s where the whole journey started.

Fortunately, The Last Open Road received excellent and enthusiastic reviews in both the mainstream and motoring press.  Like this one from Publishers Weekly: “In Palumbo, Levy has created a salt-of-the-earth character whose simple approach to life and folk wisdom make him an unassuming and yet engaging hero…Levy is a marvelous storyteller.”  After selling out two printings, The Last Open Road finally did get picked up by major New York publisher St. Martin’s Press.  However, since we car folk don’t read, St. Martin’s never really put their money behind it and Burt found that he was actually selling more books at the racetracks and on-line than St. Martin’s was selling through the book store market.  In the end, Burt and wife Carol wound up buying the rights back (St. Martin’s had pretty much given up on it by then) and The Last Open Road is now entering its 9th (!!!) hardcover printing with something like 50,000 copies sold to date. It’s also available as an e-book from Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, and The Last Open Road somehow keeps finding new audiences.  It’s found its way onto the popular online Good Reads radar, is occasionally picked by mainstream book clubs and is also used by some high-school and college-level English classes. 

Burt has touched a lot of folks through his books and that has been very rewarding to him.  “I got an email from a guy a while back.  He’s a car guy who lives out on the west coast and his wife was dying of cancer.  He was reading The Last Open Road to her at her bedside, and he wrote me about how much she enjoyed it and how helpful it was during that difficult time.  I had never met either of them, but it just about had me in tears.”  Another time I was contacted by a young woman who was reading the book to her father while he was in a bad way and laid up…I sound like a Hallmark card now…but you just can’t put a price on that sort of feeling. It’s very humbling.”

decal1440x330Burt’s racing career has not only brought him joy but through his time around garages, race tracks, racers and the many cars and characters that have come along with it, he has been handed enough stories and story ideas to last a lifetime.  But what I am learning about Burt is that he is very much like all the wild, colorful characters he writes about.  In last month’s issue, we talked about Burt’s experience being interviewed by Jay Leno.  But what you didn’t know is that the night before Burt first got introduced to Jay at a car auction in Monterey, he spent most of his evening in the Salinas Jail! “I used to write for a magazine called British Car (which later became Classic Motorsports).  So I’m at this party with my buddy David Whiteside.  He and I co-drove his Lotus 17 in the HSR’s Rolex Endurance Championship and we won the whole thing back-to-back in 1993 and 1994.  But we ran into each other out at the Monterey Historics and I’d been finishing up a story before I left to fly out there and so I’d been awake for about 30 hours.  I’d had a couple of drinks, but really not a lot.  So we’re over by the beer tapper and David just turns it on me and sprays me like we’re at a damn frat party.  Very funny.  Thanks, David!  So now it’s later on and I leave the party—I’m exhausted—and I get kind of lost trying to find my hotel because I’d never been to Monterey before and don’t know my way around.  So I’m out in the middle of nowhere. Total deserted landscape [I know now that I was heading northwest on Reservation Road, but I had no idea at the time].  And now here’s this car coming the other way, and I’ve got my brights on.  So I go to dim the brights.  Only I’m used to my street car (which at that time was an Alfa Romeo Milano) and on the Alfa you pushed in on the end of the stalk to dim the lights.  So I push in. Nothing.  And I realize—crap!—that’s the cruise control button.  So I’m fiddling around and by the time I figure it out, that oncoming car was almost up next to me.  And, sure enough, it’s a cop!  So he wheels around, turns the Mars lights on and pulls me over.  And of course he immediately smells the beer.  And so he handcuffs me and takes me to the station and books me. He’s so sure I’m drunk that he hasn’t even finished the sobriety test yet.  And when I finally get tested and pass the breathalizer, he says there’s nothing he can do at that point because he’s already booked me.  It’s funny now but at the time, no so much.  He’s also impounded my rental car which has my computer with my new novel on it (not to mention the race report I’m supposed to be working on) in the trunk.  So here I am sitting in jail somewhere in Salinas and I don’t know anybody to call.  So I end up calling my publisher/editor at British Car (whom I had never actually met before!) and, when he answered, I asked, ‘How’d you like to meet me?’  He says, ‘Well you know it is kind of late.  It’s almost 2:00 in the morning.  Where are you?” and that’s when I have to tell him: “I’m in jail, actually. Somewhere in Salinas….”

But he actually came and bailed me out, and we’ve been friends ever since.  And I’ll never forget when he came to pick me up.  He was driving a shiny white Lotus Esprit Turbo that Lotus had given him as a press car in hopes that he would write nice things about it.  So here he is driving into this crappy end of town in it so he can bail me out of jail.  And I was scared as well as tired and pissed off.  I have no idea what the two guys in the holding tank with me were in for, but they were genuinely frightening.  So I was really glad that Dave came to bail me out.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that the heart of all great humor is tragedy.  I really am convinced of that.  And we did finally get to the auction the next night and that’s when Dave introduced me to Jay.  He was looking at this enormous and voluptuous old Lagonda sports model—I think he bought it, because I’ve seen one just like it in his garage—and it was really cool to meet him.

One last colorful story about a very colorful guy!  As Burt notes in his A Potside Companion short-story anthology: “Nobody goes to college to major in Retail Automotive Sales.”  But in 1978 Burt found himself selling cars at an upscale imported car dealership in downtown Chicago called Loeber Motors.  Burt enjoyed selling cars there and he enjoyed the fantastic variety of customers and characters who walked through the dealership’s doors on a regular basis.  And one night an especially interesting gentleman came in to look at used Rolls-Royces.  Burt had noticed the guy had gotten out of a Cadillac Limo that waited for him at the curb.  He introduced himself as Charles Stevens and Burt proceeded to show him around.  And when they came upon a handsome but used 1971 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow convertible with a slightly inflated $43,500 window sticker, Burt saw the light coming up in the young man’s eyes.  Now the car had been sitting on Loeber’s lot for a long time, and both Burt and his manager were very eager to sell it.  Charles asked if they could take it for a test drive, so off they went for a quick spin in 5pm traffic and then back to the dealership.  Charles is clearly interested in the car, asks the price and then miraculously accepts the $43,500 sticker price with zero negotiation!  Only there’s one catch.  Charles’ father, who will be buying the car for him, is at home in bed ailing, and he would really like for his father to see the car.  Charles suggests that they take the car to his father the next day (which happens to be New Years’ Eve day), collect the $43,500 check and then Burt can simply leave Charles there, drive back to the dealership and when the check clears, they can notify him and he will come back to the dealership to pick up the car.  Burt and his manager knew this sounded way too easy.  But you know how it is with dealership salesmen and managers.  They really, really wanted to sell that car.  As Burt explains, “The manager and I figured we were both about to move into a new tax bracket on the very last day of the year!”

So it’s the next day and Burt’s driving them out to see the father, following Charles’ instructions. Only now they’re in the middle of nowhere in a heavily woodedlevy9360x272 area, and Burt realizes they’ve come to an intersection that they’d already been through before.  And it was at this moment that he started to get a sickening, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.  As Burt writes, “My guts went all hollow and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end like they were electrified, and that’s when he pulled the gun.  It was just a little gun.  Maybe a .22 or something and surely no bigger than what I’d seen high school swimming coaches use to start a race.  And the guy didn’t whip it out with a snarl or brandish it at me like some cowboy Hollywood gangster.  No, he just kind of eased it up out of his pocket and held it like a tiny pet steel cobra on the armrest between us, pointed directly into my ribs.”  A lot of things go through a person’s mind in times like these, and all of them are life-saving thoughts.  Burt was having lots of those thoughts once that gun was pointed at his ribs.  Charles wanted Burt to drive up a dead-end road to a secluded area where he wanted to put Burt in the trunk.  “Then he said he’d take me someplace far from phones or people where I had no idea where I was, let me out and make his getaway….”

“Well that sounded like a fair deal except for a couple of key problems…I mean if you’ve got nerve problems about it (as Charles most clearly did), it’s probably a lot easier to turn your head and fire five or six rounds into some pleading, whimpering mound of clothing in a car trunk than to shoot somebody face to face.”  Nah, Burt knew then that he had to avoid that possibility.  “I told you to turn there!” Charles snarled as the Rolls rolled past the dead-end.  But Burt just kept driving. And then kind providence provided an opportunity.  “We were coming up to a four-way stop out in the middle of nowhere, and here came some guy in a pickup truck from our left and a family in a brand new Oldsmobile down from our right and a Ford wagon full of kids heading towards us from the other direction and, out of a driveway off to the side, a white Dodge van pulled up directly behind.  Without even thinking about it, I eased off the brake and let the Rolls go right through the stop sign and pulled it to a halt crosswise right in the middle of the intersection, so nobody could move.  And then I just turned to him and said ‘if you’re gonna shoot me, you’re gonna do it in front of all these people’ and I bailed out of the car!”

And so he did.  And I’m not going to reveal the shocking surprise ending to this particular story (you’ll have to read it for yourself in A Potside Companion) but let me just say you’ll be amazed when you find out what the gent calling himself “Charles Stevens” did for a living!

Burt’s had a lot of close calls, near misses, dumb ideas, discouraging disappointments and plenty of grand and not-so-grand adventures, and those personal experiences have left him with enough material to fill up book after book after book.  And he’s got ideas and story lines in mind to keep writing well into the future.

I can’t wait for the next one (and here’s hoping one day there’s an autobiography!).

Read Part I

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