Mark Terry

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Fastest Funny Car

August 18, 2009
You learn something every day, I guess. I was digging up some info on another of my well-remembered tween/teen books, The Fastest Funny Car by Patrick J. Williams, only to discover that Patrick J. Williams is one of many pseudonyms for WEB Griffin. Which is somewhat ironic, because it reminded me of another of my favorite tween/teen books (which I hadn't been planning to write about), called, I think, "The Amazing Steam Machine" although I'm going to have to dig around and see if that's the actual title now.

Anyway, The Fastest Funny Car, isn't about a funny (ha-ha) car, but about what I suppose would be called a stock car these days. Anyway, the main character is a guy who grew up being a very, very talented pianist, primarily interested in classical piano, but with a side interest in jazz piano. His mother always assumed he'd go on to be a music major. Somewhere along the way he got very interested in engineering and made plans to get a degree in engineering.

In the summer after his high school graduation, he gets a job playing piano at a very stuffy, wealthy resort (in my memory it seemed to more closely resemble a nursing home, but I think it was a sort of cross between both). He plays a "tea dance" which is to say, he played during meals and gave a concert every day or so.

While getting his car fixed one day (a job he was doing himself, he just needed garage space), he meets up with a guy who's an engineer who's quit that to work on building and racing his funny car. So they start hanging out and working in the garage and there's a whole bunch of sort of class and social tension between the wrench-monkey and the pianist, plus the main character is poor so he's pretty much on the hook for the job just so he can go to school in the fall.

The book was written in 1967, and I undoubtedly inherited it from my brother, who is 7 years older than I am. I must have read it in the mid to late-70s, when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, somewhere in there. It appealed to me a lot. I mentioned it to my brother once when I was reading it and he commented that it was one of those books that seemed to reflect him as well--the musician who was nonetheless interested in science, etc.

I can see now how this book dealt with a conflict I've spent most of my life dealing with (successfully or unsuccessfully, who know?), how do you reconcile an interest in arts/music with one in science? It also deals with the conflict between "classical" music and so-called "popular music" which is something we continue to deal with in all the arts, books included.

How about you? Any more important books from your younger years?



Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hmmmm. The book was called "The Roper Brothers and Their Magnificent Steam Automobile" and it was written by William E. Butterworth, another pseudonym for W.E.B. Griffin. The description I find is:

Two brothers who accidentally acquire a Doble, an old steam automobile, have serious differences when one desperately needs the money it is worth and the other is determined to restore it before selling.

I suppose that's an OK description of the book, if rather cursory.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

That sounds like a book I'd love! I think it's less of a conflict than it used to be. A lot of pianists do both to pay the bills. And artists like Yo-Yo Ma have done incredible, innovative crossover stuff. Remember his album with Bobby McFerrin? And Yo-Yo Ma's "silk road" stuff is fantastic. Then there's Joshua Bell, who did an album with Bela Fleck. (Have you heard that yet? You would LOVE it. I promise! Like, get it on Amazon/iTunes today! It's THAT good!)

When I was young, my important books like that were The Silver Seven about a figure skater, and High Note, Low Note about a pianist who thinks she's going to be a visual artist because her father said so on his deathbed. (My father died, too, and my piano was his last birthday present to me.) She is a talented visual artist because the teacher "thought she was male" from her drawing (GAH! Ohmigosh! The stuff we grew up with!), but she learns that "artist" can be "pianist," too.

Come to think of it, I think I've just morphed two books into one, in my memory. Because in High Note, Low Note, the mother has died. Oh boy. I'm missing a book!

8:04 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

PS: You know, every time you tell the story of why you quit piano, I have this urge to drive over there and show you that you can play anything you want. They didn't know how to teach technique until the last ten or twenty years. It used to be that you could either do it or you couldn't. A big majority still don't know how to teach technique.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Are you sure that was me? I took piano lessons on the side in my freshman year in college, then just ran out of time because I was a microbiology major with a job. I played on and off once I had a piano in the house, but was never terribly driven to keep going. I'd gotten more toward the top of my technique, but that doesn't mean there isn't thousands of pieces I could work on. I just didn't find the motivation for it. Maybe jazz piano, who knows? But I'm having fun with the guitar. Just had my lesson, as a matter of fact. Working on some beastly jazz chords for Cry Me A River.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Oh! That makes sense. (There is no top to your technique, I guarantee I could see to it that you could play anything!) I think you'd put it in a way that I took it as, you'd given up because you'd reached the top of your technique. :-)

8:35 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, the top of my technique was Bach fugues, Beethoven sonatas, and pieces by Brahms, et al. I might be able to play a Rachmaninoff concerto, but how well and how much work do I want to put in on it?

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Sheesh. I'm almost embarrassed to comment. I can't play (or even sing) a note. I barely mastered long division so no science for me either. I can write a little and that, sad to say, is the extent of my abilities. At least I don't need to agonize about what to do.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't know, Eric, your post reminds me of the studio exec's assessment of Fred Astaire: Can't act, can't sing. Can dance a little.

Don't sell yourself short.

Besides, you can get from Point A to Point B, etc., just using a compass. I get lost all the time even when I know where I'm going!

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Ah. Yes. Fred Astaire is one of my heroes!

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Christine said...

It's interesting to note that in Friedman's THE WORLD IS FLAT, he writes an entire chapter about how the US can continue to survive and thrive in the flat world. Basically, we need to combine a love of technology/science with a love of music/art/creativity to keep our innovative edge. Hmm...

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Heh, my main reaction to your entry about The Fastest Funny Car book was simply to remember how happy I had been many years ago (many, many, many) to drag race my VW Beetle in the "O Stock" class. Not exactly up with the Funny Cars and the Fuelies, but it was fun.

8:31 PM  

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