Jonis Agee gets no sympathy from the cops. They see her flying down the road with no mind to the speed limit, and they chase her down. Truth is, she almost looks like she should be pulled over, with her unruly red hair and eyes crinkled with mischief. But Agee is really asking for that ticket when she tells them what she does for a living: Agee teaches English. "They seem friendly enough until they hear that," she says. "Then they whip out the pad and start writing the ticket. They always say, 'Oh, I didn't do too good in English.' I guess I'm paying for the sins of all the English teachers that came before me."
Speeding tickets add up on a teaching salary, so Agee finally bought a slow car. But her taste for speed busts out in other places. She still talks fast, with her hands conducting her thoughts. She lives fast, or rather, lives a lot, cramming travel, family, the equivalent of several jobs, and a full-time imaginary life into her hours. She also writes fast. Agee's tenth book, a novel, came out in July and her eleventh, Taking the Wall(Coffee House Press), due out in a few weeks, is a collection of 20 short stories, each one featuring a fast car.
"What happened was, I moved to Michigan and got caught up in the place's obsession, which is car culture," Agee says. "I was totally alone, I didn't know hardly anybody there, so I wrote like a fiend and got interested in car racing."
She didn't move to Michigan for the cars, although as a girl in the 1950s, she'd absorbed the finer points of auto culture from a brother with a '55 Chevy. Instead, Agee relocated because after 20 years of teaching at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, she thought she needed a change. She accepted a job at the University of Michigan in 1995, bought a reputedly haunted Victorian house, and started fixing up the place. But when she sat down to take a break from that work, she found herself following the Michigan Speedway motor races in the newspaper.
"I was first drawn in by the language, the lingo of the sport," she says. "And then I started getting involved in all the little rivalries and watching the races on TV.
"The conventional notion is, car-racing fans are a bunch of fat rednecks drinking beer. White guys," Agee says. "But in fact, according to a study I read, 50 percent are women, and 50 percent have college educations. It's actually a fan-oriented sport, and really family-oriented. So I started looking beyond the race into everything that goes on when the cars are turned off. The drivers get all the attention, but they are only part of it. There are the families, the people who build the cars, the fans."
Consistent with that unheroic view of the sport, Taking the Wall is a book about the races that aren't won, the cars that quit running, and, as the title implies, the moments when a driver crashes and bursts into flames. Some of Agee's racing favorites star in ESPN "worst-ever car crash" tapes, some are the people biting their lips on the sidelines, but in both groups a certain resilience prevails. "I like Winston Cup and NASCAR racing for that reason," Agee says. "People stay in the race even when there's no chance of winning. And they get points for that! I know it seems simpleminded, but it seems important to me. Especially in our culture where people feel, 'If I'm not going to win, then I'm not going to play.'"
Even when they're losing the race, Agee's characters chug along, and it's the humor of such situations that fuel these tales. In the story "Dwight Tuggle," Agee sets her protagonist behind the motor of a riding lawn mower:
Dwight's neck hasn't been the same since Shelly Anderson pulled a 336 MPH in her top fuel dragster and his wife called a 51-50 on him. Police hold for crazies. What was she thinking? He trims the gas on the mower and sets the choke so it roars along loud enough to wake the dead neighbors. They must be dead, otherwise they'd come out of the house.
Life has slowed for Tuggle, but the reader suspects that the pedal of his power motor never leaves the floor.
NASCAR driving, by definition, is a race to the finish, and there is absolutely no opportunity to shift into reverse, or turn the car around and return to what came before. By contrast, Agee found herself missing her adult daughter while she lived in Ann Arbor, and so she went back to St. Kate's, the school that nuns run. (Disclosure: While a student at St. Kate's a number of years ago, I took a class from Agee.) She bought an old house with a front porch overlooking a busy street just west of downtown St. Paul, picked the biggest, sunniest room to write in, and started working on what will become her 12th book, about a neglected adolescent boy. At the end of the school year, she hit the road on a book tour for her novel The Weight of Dreams(Viking), which came out this summer. There are no particularly fast cars in the volume, but there are some fast horses.