Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Nathan Deuel Deuel is the au­thor of “Fri­day Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Mid­dle East.”

The Long Haul

A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road

Finn Mur­phy

W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $26.95

We’ve all done it: The exit’s up ahead, but there’s a trac­tor-trailer in the way, lum­ber­ing along, block­ing the turn. Zoom ahead, pass quickly, make it just in time — but what we’ve un­know­ingly ex­e­cuted is a “sui­cide squeeze.” The trac­tor­trailer (fully loaded at 80,000 pounds) can strug­gle to stop, and if a front tire blows, the trac­tor might veer vi­o­lently, suck­ing the big rig and every car nearby into a may­hem we don’t re­ally want to com­pre­hend.

With his hand on the wheel, our guide to this largely un­ex­plored sub­cul­ture is Finn Mur­phy: col­lege dropout, long-haul trucker and the “Great White Mover,” cruis­ing on what he es­ti­mates is his 3,000th job since ac­quir­ing a com­mer­cial driver’s li­cense in July of 1980.

“I’ve got a hard-mus­cled body, a big, com­fort­able, new trac­tor haul­ing a 53-foot mov­ing trailer,” he writes in his first book, the mem­oir “Long Haul.” “There’s the whis­tle of the su­per­charger as I shift into the thir­teenth gear, the whoosh of the air dryer, my mouth slightly sour, arms shak­ing from the pound­ing of the wheel, mak­ing money, set­ting my own sched­ule, the Man­hat­tan sky­line on my right, fly­ing fast and fu­ri­ous .... ”

As a young man in Con­necti­cut, Mur­phy first en­coun­ters road war­riors while pump­ing gas for an an­gry sta­tion owner: “Dan,” he ob­serves, “had ended up on the wrong tread­mill, and he hated that.” Across the lot, mean­while, there was a ship­ping agent who em­ployed a bevy of strong and proud men who didn’t seem nearly as dis­sat­is­fied.

Af­ter a brief ap­pren­tice­ship, Mur­phy tells his par­ents he’s drop­ping out of Colby Col­lege for the open road — and in re­sponse his dad promptly hands over a bill for three years tu­ition and rent for three pre­vi­ous sum­mers.

What hooks Mur­phy so thor­oughly, de­spite so­ci­ety’s ap­par­ent dis­ap­proval, is that in ad­di­tion to the money and free­dom, the roug­hand-tum­ble un­der­world of big trucks and long drives ac­tu­ally feels like a mean­ing­ful les­son in the pride and pu­rity of hard work. “When you hired movers,” he writes, “they moved it. Ex­e­cu­tion was the im­per­a­tive. This un-equiv­o­ca­tion was very at­trac­tive to me then, as it is now.”

There are all kinds of truck­ers. Mur­phy’s a mover (or a bed­bug­ger), not to be con­fused with car haulers (park­ing lot at­ten­dants), an­i­mal trans­porters (chicken chok­ers), re­frig­er­ated food haulers (reefers) or haz­mat haulers (sui­cide jock­eys.) What unites most of them, Mur­phy ex­plains with some dis­taste, is how hap­pily they com­mu­ni­cate with each other over CB ra­dios, in a kind of pri­vate so­cial network Mur­phy doesn’t rel­ish like he does all that time alone.

The way Mur­phy thinks of it, most of the other long-haul driv­ers are all too happy to gather around the gas sta­tion and guf­faw. What they’re prob­a­bly miss­ing out on, Mur­phy sug­gests, are lone­lier and more po­etic thoughts, such as the way the en­gines them­selves, “want to work hard. What they like is a full load and twenty-hour run at 65.” When you main­tain one prop­erly, he writes, it can run a mil­lion miles.

But it’s his rich per­spec­tive as a mover that makes this story of truck­ing life so in­sight­ful. “When you move peo­ple and pack their stuff,” he writes, “you see how peo­ple re­ally live, not how they want the neigh­bors to think they live.”

The lessons Mur­phy of­fers are not with­out some sharp­ness. Most of us, Mur­phy ex­plains, should sim­ply throw ev­ery­thing away when we re­lo­cate; there’s only cheap elec­tron­ics and dis­pos­able fur­ni­ture. While in the wealth­i­est homes, Mur­phy says, a move is es­pe­cially poignant: It’s that brief and chill­ing mo­ment of vul­ner­a­bil­ity, when an ech­e­lon of Amer­ica that can usu­ally ig­nore any­one else sud­denly needs strangers “car­ry­ing your sa­cred mar­riage bed into the mas­ter bed­room suite.”

The one time Mur­phy tells us about his own vul­ner­a­bil­ity is when he sleeps with the wife of a mil­i­tary com­man­der, fu­ri­ous be­cause her cold hus­band no longer loves her. We root for Mur­phy to make it work, but he ad­mits his real crush: Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio’s Terry Gross, “be­cause I’ve spent more time with her than any­one else in my life.” More truck­ers than you’d think, he says, lis­ten to NPR.

What does the fu­ture hold? Truck­ers, Mur­phy writes, are just wagon trains for a mod­ern world, and when robots re­place all the hu­man la­bor, all that will hark back to the orig­i­nal movers is the way en­gines will still be mea­sured in horse­power.

For what seems like for­ever, John McPhee and pro­fes­sional non­fic­tion writers have been the ones to ex­plain things like truck­ing to us. For now, in a well-writ­ten story that rarely slows down, the driver can go it alone.

Nonac Digi Getty Images

FINN MUR­PHY writes about see­ing “how peo­ple re­ally live.”

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