A natty reconstruction of the famous round-the-world auto race.
When the contraption was only in its 20th year, six cars undertook to drive from New York to Paris the long way, 22,000 miles west from the starting point. Journalist Fenster (Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine, 2003) has a charging style that suits the race to a tee, right from the blatting eruption of engines in Times Square. First, though, she covers the stakes involved: how the French wanted to maintain the dominance they’d established in the Peking to Paris race a year earlier; how the Germans wanted to display the aura of plenty that glowed on the Old Germany; how the Americans strove to demonstrate the pluck of their new industry. But where Fenster shines is in describing the terrain of the race. Roads were crude affairs in 1908, and service stations, of course, nonexistent. The idea was to drive across the Bering Strait, though circumstances demanded the drivers take boats instead, and what they met in the Far East, from bogs to bandits, was enough to make up for that bit of ease. After thousands of miles, what it boiled down to was a race between the German car and the American, with attendant displays of sportsmanship. Bad roads, when there were roads at all, were the least of the racers’ troubles: they had to contend with hunger when they weren’t being fêted; with wrong turns; insurrection; endless dank forests and the simple, terrifying fear of being plain lost. All this Fenster conveys with immediacy, including the cold, the mud and the essentially suicidal route, where local inhabitants could be more dangerous than the murderous lay of the land.
Fenster is a superb storyteller, taking the factual information of the race and investing it with wit and brio. A race like this, almost otherworldly in its setting, has much potential, and Fenster taps into every mile of it. (Six photos, not seen)