Other terms that will prove catnip for lovers of professional slang: bobtailing, deadheading, lollipops. (Driving a tractor without a trailer; driving an empty truck; those tiny green mile markers freckling the interstate.) Hitting a low bridge is “getting a haircut.” “Chicken chokers” are truckers who move animals, “parking lot attendants” are truckers who move cars, and “suicide jockeys” are truckers who move hazardous materials. Fellows like Murphy are called bedbuggers; and their trucks, roach coaches.
I will try not to think about either of those last terms the next time I relocate. Nor will I think about the fact that movers sometimes inspect the contents of your boudoir. Murphy’s recommendation: “Salt the lingerie drawer with plastic snakes or a loaded mousetrap.” (Who says the vagina dentata is a myth?)
“The Long Haul” can be almost shamefully enjoyable, allowing readers to have their fix of “fabulous-life-of” porn and class outrage, too. You wouldn’t believe the downpour of indignities and diminishments Murphy has weathered over the years — being videotaped from one room to the next, being banished to distant porta-potties when functional bathrooms were steps away. One client — an ex-banker from an ex-bank — was so awful that Murphy ordered his crew to install the guy’s eight gravestones of Qing dynasty emperors upside down.
How Murphy came to read Chinese is another story, and it’s inseparable from the strengths and weaknesses of this memoir.
As he himself says, Murphy does not meet your average trucker profile. He was raised in Cos Cob, a comfortable suburb of Connecticut and spent three years at Colby College before dropping out to drive a truck. (Hence the elementary Chinese. He studied it for a semester.) He’s an amateur sociologist and a philosopher, opining on such topics as the origins of the “anti-urban, anti-statist” trucker culture and the transcendent pointlessness of material possessions.
Yet there’s a huge question at the heart of Murphy’s memoir, and it’s one he never answers: How did a guy like him — who falls asleep reading Jane Austen, who has a crush on Terry Gross — become a long-haul mover?
Murphy gives us a partial explanation. He was a restless adolescent. “Many young male neurotics find out early that hard labor is salve for an overactive mind,” he writes. Moving furniture gave him a measure of self-determination he badly craved. A whole subset of truckers, he notes, are tumbleweeds, preferring to “go through life on an anonymous surface.” They’re ghosts in snakeskin boots.
What the reader doesn’t realize, at least for a long while, is that Murphy is a member of that subset. Midway through “The Long Haul,” he does something disconcerting and entirely unexpected: He gives up driving. For more than 20 years, if I’m calculating correctly. And he never says why.
Now, I’m not saying this omission is on par with the 18½ missing minutes of conversation between Richard Nixon and H. R. Haldeman. But it does seem like a literary crime of some sort. It makes you wonder, at any rate, whether those years contain the real story about this man. He alludes to “an avalanche of poor decisions,” though we never learn what they were. We simply know that at 51, Murphy found himself in a city out West where he knew no one and had “no job, no plans, no nothing,” and wanted back in his truck.
At just the moment our engagement with Murphy should deepen, it shallows. He gets his second act. But we never learn what went wrong in Act I.
This jagged hole — which flutters in the middle of the memoir where decades of experience should be woven through — isn’t the only thing that compromises Murphy as a narrator. There’s something occasionally mannered and artificial about his dialogue, which tends toward the screwball or the Socratic, depending on the moment. (Though at its best, it’s kind of great, as if Hepburn and Tracy were handed their own CBs.)
And Murphy is clearly conflicted about class, justifiably furious at the rich executives who condescend to him but equally condescending to his trucker brethren who earn far less than he does. (Which, in a good year, can be as much as $250,000.) Murphy senses, probably correctly, that their preoccupation with the status of their vehicles is a kind of anxious compensation for low wages.
“‘Whatcha drivin’?’ is a standard first question at truckstop coffee counters,” he writes. “‘Got a bank account?’ would be my first question.”
That’s pretty harsh.
What redeems this book, time and time again, are the stories Murphy tells. My goodness, how astonishing they are, and how moving, and how funny, and how just plain weird. Wait until you get to the one about the unlikely polygamist. Or the client who dies, mid-move. The next time you think of your movers as invisible, remember: They see all of your secrets. They know exactly who you are.