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.
Set in the Sandhill region of Nebraska, the novel comes off like a prairie still life compared to the roaring speedway that framed Agee's story collection. But the author, who grew up in rural Nebraska, knows this place, too. "One of the things I try to do in my writing is preserve the remnant of the natural world and the rural lifestyle that is disappearing so quickly," she says. "I think we'll be the last people to see that world. It makes me very sad. So, often in my books there's a sense of nostalgia. I try not to be sentimental about it, but I'm trying to register the sense of this profound loss."
Like a lot people who once lived outside the city, Agee has seen her history partially bulldozed into the ground. "I moved here in '75 and I used to go just north of St. Paul to ride my horses. Now, everywhere I kept a horse, everywhere I've ridden is gone," she says. "That's true in Omaha, too. My grandfather's farm is still there, but they've put an interstate through it. Everywhere I rode there, even the creeks, and this old graveyard that I discovered--that's all gone, subdivided and developed. I don't know what they did with the graveyard; I guess they could have just plowed it under. But to make the land itself disappear?"
Agee laughs, and chastises herself for being a grim conversationalist. She laughs a lot, in hearty, infectious peals like Patsy Cline on old ballroom recordings. The cars she loves are the reason the land she loves is disappearing, and the only thing she can do about that irony is write it all down.
"I don't want all of our cultural decisions and cultural values to be set by people who live surrounded by pavement and buildings and non-natural conditions. There's a real physical life in rural areas that people who live there [use to] define themselves--through their physical labors and rhythms. I think a lot of us miss that. I think that's why we always romanticize anyone who works in the natural world."
Yet there is little romance in The Weight of Dreams. Working outdoors is dirty and exhausting, and Agee's characters are so tired they can scarcely speak to one another by the time dark falls on the land. It's a hard life for a kid, and the novel's Ty Bonte grows up a little warped after working on his abusive father's ranch. Agee lets him escape and become a soft-hearted horse trader, but a familiar from his youth tracks him down, and Ty becomes entangled in a horse-killing scheme that echoes an earlier act of violence.
"It's a hard book to read in some ways, I know it," Agee admits. "But I think it serves some purpose in confronting these issues. We read novels for instruction, in part, and also for entertainment. But people don't always realize they read to learn how to behave. Ty does something bad, but he spends the rest of his life paying for it. It's sort of the classic Crime and Punishment dilemma. We don't want to take responsibility for what we've done, and in this society, we don't want our children to take responsibility for the things they've done. I wrestle with this uncertainty in my work. Should we understand, or should there be moral outrage?"
The answer to that question depends on exactly how you like your evil. Ty Bonte is forgiven by Agee because he's been swept into trouble by a more psychologically damaged friend, who is not forgiven for his actions. It is a writer's privilege to weigh her characters consciences, and a writer's prerogative to decide who is essentially good (but prone to making mistakes) and who evil (despite his miserable childhood). The dividing act in this novel is the brutal killing of a horse.
"Every time I had to work on that part, I'd be so exhausted I just had to go to sleep afterwards, to kind of wash it through me," Agee remembers, fiddling worriedly with a small metal crow sculpture she keeps next to her couch. "But it was important to write that scene, because I had to show what true darkness was. To me, that was true darkness, to take something helpless and destroy it for money. People have remarked on that, and it angers some people. But the fact is, that is a true story, those things have happened, they have happened in the Twin Cities, and they continue to happen. I wanted the world to know what this looks like. This isn't just putting a dog down; this is violent, cruel, and sick.
"It's hard to read, but I would much rather my reader have that experience with horror than in, say, Silence of the Lambs, where a guy is butchering young women and making clothes out of them. To me, that was horror on a level that was incredibly irresponsible. I threw that book away, and I don't treat books that way.
"I think the imagination is so powerful, you have to be careful of what you imagine. Years ago, I wrote a story about a woman who accidentally locks her dog in the garage and goes away for the weekend, and the dog tries to tear his way out and eventually bursts through the window. Then a week or so later I went out to my garage, and everything I'd described, including the broken window, had come true. Some animal had been locked in. So I learned that if I write something too bad, it could come true. That's my superstition."