Your newborn son lies fighting for his life, the sickest baby in the NICU at NYU Medical Center. Your mother dies. Your father is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Your older son is seriously mauled by the family dog. Your marriage begins to unravel. Your tight financial situation weighs heavily on your mind. All of this happens in one horrific year.
What do you do?
If you are Mark Millhone, you buy a car. Used. Sight unseen. A car that sits, in all its low-mileage splendor, in a garage in Dallas. A 1994 BMW 740i in Orient Blue, mint. It is cherry. It is flavors yet to be mapped, sensations yet to be charted. And it is calling you.
The Patron Saint of Used Cars and Second Chances is Mark Millhone’s chronicle of the road trip he took with his father as he drove the “Blue Beckham Bomber,” (as his children named it), from Dallas back home to New York. We caught up with Mark on another road trip with, yes, the Bomber, to talk with him about memoir, adversity and gas mileage.
Anne Pelletier (Rail): Within a year, your family had more misery visited upon them than any family should have to endure. What possessed you to buy a 1994 BMW 740i, even if it was cherry?
Mark Millhone: Why I did it was something of a mystery to me as well. I was fully aware of the insanity of it, but, as I write in the book, it was almost like the voice that guy hears in “Field of Dreams.” I felt like I HAD to buy this car, like it was calling to me on an almost spiritual level. In looking back on it now, I think it was less about the car than just a profound need to find something, anything, that could deliver us from all the things that we’d been going through.
Because I’m a writer and have taught writing, stories are very much alive for me. In some corner of my mind, I think I fancied that what I was doing was going on a knightly quest to find a sacred object that could help us defeat our demons. The knightly quest is always, on the face of it, desperate, almost hilariously so.
The journey to go get the car and the time spent reflecting upon everything with my father was the real magic elixir that I needed and that’s what I find most precious about this car, although the Bomber is a sweet ride.
Rail: I felt a sense of spirituality, but I also became aware that, no matter how dark and despairing a moment you found yourself in, you did not turn to a Supreme Being for help, comfort or guidance. Were you surprised by this?
Millhone: I wasn’t brought up in any particular religious tradition. My parents were brought up to be lapsed Methodists and they brought us up to be lapsed Unitarians. Where that leaves my kids, I’m not sure…after the Unitarians, there’s really not much to lapse from.
I think that’s why the car figured so strongly for me. In times of trial you do need to reach out to something outside yourself to see yourself through. I toss it off as a joke, but it really did have a sort of religious or spiritual significance for me. It truly was a sort of prayer.
I “heard the call” of this car on eBay. It told me I needed to buy it, that this would make things different. I guess the Lord/Allah/Yaweh/Vishnu/you-name-it really does work in mysterious ways.
I was also surprised to find the resources within myself to just keep my head up, keep walking. This endurance is a quality I got from my father. Part of the healing that went on between us was me getting a chance [during the drive from Dallas to New York] to gain an appreciation for his strengths: his ability to soldier on, not fall apart, carry on no matter what. As with most mortals, his strengths are difficult to untangle from his weaknesses.
Rail: If, God forbid, another tragedy struck, how do you think you would handle it? Would you buy another car? Take another road trip?
Millhone: The things that happened to our family were rather ordinary in the grand scheme of things. The special challenge was in having a lifetime of ordinary troubles descend in the span of a year. As hard as these experiences were, they were, ultimately, a gift. Adversity and change are the true constants in our lives. Every story worth reading is, when you get right down to it, about the gift that adversity presents to our lives. We are pushed beyond the realm of our known abilities, forced to make a wild-ass leap into the unknown. We land in a place with a larger, richer sense of our world and our capabilities. You don’t get up off the couch and make that leap until you’re pushed. That’s the gift of adversity.
Rail: Well, okay, but is this a case of extreme lemonade-making? You write about your father’s Midwestern optimism and how you have some of that. Is your glass always two-thirds full?
Millhone: I think people sometimes think life shouldn’t be hard, but life is hard. Before the bottom fell out, I had the luxury of thinking my life sucked. I sat around thinking my life sucked. Then when everything hit, I got taken beyond my ego. I was forced to look beyond myself to make order from chaos and to find meaning. Never having had a really bad day, I was moping through life, thinking I was having all kinds of bad days. A bad day is when your son has so many tubes and wires plugged into him in the intensive care unit that he looks like the back of your VCR. That’s what a bad day looks like. Every other day is pretty darned good.
Rail: A couple of moments stood out for me: one when you realize “I am my father,” and another when you realize “My father didn’t know what he was doing” (as a parent). Can you say more about these moments? Was one worse than the other—harder to take?
Millhone: My understanding of these two pivotal moments is kind of a moving target. Recognizing the part of my father that had been hardest for me to wrestle with—his physically present but emotionally absent workaholic tendencies—was a big wake-up call for me. Recognizing him when I looked in the mirror was chilling for me. But it also becomes easier to forgive our parents’ failings when they become our own.
Realizing my father didn’t know what he was doing, was faking his way through each day, trying not to fuck up, is a realization I find strangely liberating now. If you allow for human error, life’s a lot easier to take sometimes.
Rail: Your portrait of your parents is complicated. You come to land in a place where your father is fundamentally a decent man who made some (big) mistakes. However, your late mother is shown in a less forgiving, less sympathetic light. Can you say more about this?
Millhone: There’s a great quote from Marguerite Duras that may not apply to all mothers but definitely applied to mine: “I believe that always, or almost always, in all childhoods, and in all the lives that follow them, the mother represents madness.” Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.
That said, my mother fully deserves her own book. She was such a challenging/compelling/charismatic character. She makes all the other great female characters I could name from Amanda Winfield in The Glass Menagerie to Medea in, you know, Medea, seem like two-dimensional wallflowers by comparison. The mystery of how exactly she became the way she was was a great mystery she never got to the bottom of despite trying everything: Western psychology, Eastern philosophy, hypnosis, past-life regression, reiki, light therapy, repressed memory therapy, you name it. Her last guru was a guy I will call the Amazing Fred, who was known as one of our foremost channelers of the spirit Ramada (not, to my knowledge, afilliated with the hotel chain).
Rail: If this book were to be made into a movie, who would you want to play you? You father? And Rose (your wife)? Has it been optioned?
Millhone: Geez. I guess most every guy would secretly like to think that Brad Pitt was their appropriate on-screen alter ego and so I will happily join in this collective delusion. To play my Dad it would be hard to go wrong with Clint Eastwood. Sam Shepard would be great, too. My wife is a big fan of Hope Davis, and Maura Tierney.
Being a filmmaker (I’m directing my first feature film this summer), if this ever did get optioned, that would be an interesting process for me. Having a book come out and a film to direct within a month of each other is a really nice problem to have but, on the whole, I don’t recommend it!
Rail: What would you most like people to take away from this book?
Millhone: The greatest gift of this experience for me was an appreciation for how many of the most hilarious moments in life are inextricably bound to the most horrendous. That’s the sugar that gets me through my toughest days. If the readers of my book can come away with just a little of that sweetness, I will feel like I’ve done my job.