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I See By My Outfit - wBW Book Review

I See By My Outfit
By Peter S. Beagle
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: Centro Books (July 25, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1933572078
ISBN-13: 978-1933572079
Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches
List price: $14.95

wBW Book Review by Alice Dryden

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Author Peter S. Beagle is best-known for his fantasy novels.  But five years before he found literary success with The Last Unicorn, he went on a magical, epic quest of his own - with a faithful companion, on an unlikely steed, through strange lands filled with perils and larger-than-life characters.

It's a cold spring morning in the early 1960s.  Two childhood friends set out from New York City on a pair of 175cc Heinkel Tourist scooters.  Pete, our narrator, is travelling to be with his girlfriend, while Phil is hoping to find inspiration for his paintings.  Their destination?  Menlo Park, California.

That's a journey of nearly three thousand miles by the most direct route -- and these guys make frequent detours, or just plain get lost -- on underpowered machines laden with camping gear and art supplies.

Lying ahead of the riders are deserts and mountains, rainstorms and bitter April nights, mechanical failures and heated arguments.  They travel through an America of beatniks, Happenings and casual racism, in an age when references to The Lord of the Rings have to be glossed because only geeks have read it.

The pair's adventures on and off the Heinkels will resonate with anyone who's travelled on two wheels: the joys, the frustrations, the love and hate that a bike can inspire, often within the same hour.  They adore and romanticise their scooters, giving them each a name (‘Jenny’ and ‘Couchette’) and a character.  They attempt repairs and are delighted and astonished when they succeed.

They camp with such incompetence that they risk freezing to death, or stay in chilly, bug-infested motels.  They battle headwinds that slow their little machines to a crawl, and break down on a godforsaken highway in the middle of the night.  The cold and the weariness and the despair are palpable.

Yet for every scare or setback there's an equal and opposite moment of such joy that you wish you could have been there.  A breathtaking view, a kind word from a stranger, a smell in the air, all experiences that wouldn't have come about if the chosen means of transport hadn't been two-wheeled.  The curious children, the crazies that bikes seem to attract like flies to the windshield, the mechanics who've never heard of your marque but still kludge something together so the journey can continue.

Beagle's vivid prose immerses the reader not only in the physical terrain but in the mindset reserved for bikers: the closeness to the environment, the vulnerability and the sense of awe that turn us all into temporary philosophers.

I can't understand why 'I See By My Outfit' isn't better known, since in my opinion it deserves classic status both within and outside the biking-travelogue genre.  It's Easy Rider in book form; it's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with funny bits.  Descriptions and snippets of dialogue that crease me up are balanced by flashes of wisdom.  There's an underlying wistfulness, too, in the writer's knowledge that the journey must end and the spirit of it can never quite be recaptured.

Above all, in this age of ever more exotic bike adventures to the remotest parts of the globe, here's proof that you don't need to travel to another continent to find adventure -- it can start just beyond the corner of Selwyn Avenue.

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Editor's Note:  More information regarding the origin of the title "I See By My Outfit"

 


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