Courage is a word you could use to describe bicycling, especially the urban kind I do wherein one risks one’s life while several-ton killing machines blow by at high speeds mere inches away. Or bike racing, BMX riding with the ramps and jumps and tricks, or screaming down a mountain on a bike: all take some degree of courage. But writing? It doesn’t take any courage at all to sit down at a laptop and start hammering away, right? Well, that’s easy to say if you haven’t tried to write a book. And when it comes to memoir, laying your soul bare to people you never have, and never will meet, takes a big chunk of gumption.
I should know, because I’ve been writing this blog for over five years, albeit with far less courage since I use a nom de plume / velo. I have also written a book — a memoir. I have yet to find the courage to even show it to others to read. (I’m getting close to sharing with beta readers, once I figure out the details, having finally just found two awesome volunteers.) But in Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180, his 2005 memoir (I know, I’m very late to the party), author, creative writing professor, magazine article writer, and cyclist Mike Magnuson has courage in spades. (Heft is a follow-up to his previous memoir, Lummox.) As quoted in a speech he gave, I’d even go so far as to say he has “sixteen suitcases full of courage.”
A friend gave me this book quite a while ago. I read the first scene and had to put it down because something happens that I didn’t want to read about; it hit too close to home, and I wasn’t ready for it. (I can’t explain it without it being a spoiler, which I’m not going to do.) Time passed, I kept the book accessible throughout several moves, and it called to me, but I didn’t answer. Eventually, I picked it up again, got a little farther, and for no particular reason — maybe having something to do with not wanting to compare my memoir in progress to one that had been completed and published — I put it back down. Finally, after resolving to read in a book at least 30 minutes a day every day this year, 2021, I finished it.
I’m glad I did. Because not only did the author unpack all those suitcases of courage to go out and bicycle his ass off and then write about those stories, he also unpacked a lot of emotional baggage. You see, years of smoking, drinking, and eating to excess had made his life unlivable. He had bicycled throughout his life, but a magazine cover with a photograph of him in all his naked, fat glory was a real wake-up call. So he goes on what in literature is called the archetypal hero’s journey to reclaim his health, sanity and life. And he shares it all in ways that are gut-wrenching, hilarious, inspiring, and insightful.
Although I’ve never struggled with addiction, I’m aware of the damage it can do. Whether or not you have struggled with abusing a substance or ride a bicycle, this is a deeply humanistic book. Human foibles being what they are, we can still relate to failing — our peers, our loved ones, and maybe even ourselves. When Mike fails at something, he fails spectacularly. When he puts his mind to something, he usually succeeds. And if he doesn’t he learns from it, picks himself up off the ground, and starts again.
This is part of the universal appeal of Mike’s book: We each have the capacity to learn from our screw-ups. Live and learn, as the cliche goes. Or as I like to say, “Live, learn, forget, and start all over again.” What Mike had to learn the hard way (if he did isn’t exactly clear) is that one can become addicted to exercise, too. Or be a great bike rider and still be an awful person. I encounter those people regularly. Just today someone who was actually wearing a shirt that said “Jack. Hole” nearly ran me down on the boardwalk around Town Lake here in Austin, Texas. (Well, it said Jackson Hole, but close enough.)
It’s hard to write about Heft on Wheels without giving away plot points. But I can say that by grappling with his food, tobacco and alcohol issues, he gets very serious about cycling. It’s a challenge to not compare his journey and writing about those travels — both on and off the bicycle — to my own, even though I have no issues with substances (unless you count chocolate). And as a professional writer and professor, he’s got a leg up on me. That’s ok. All our journeys are different and will look very different depending on where we came from, who we are, and where we’re going. Where we end up may not be the place we thought we were destined for; how we get there could be completely different from how we want or imagined. What matters about Mike’s story, and his book, is that he successfully laid bare his soul, mostly by doing as they say in bike racing, “leaving everything on the road.”
For that reason, I found myself sympathizing with the guy, even when he was being a complete jackass and a real asshole. Which he would be the first to admit he is. But he’s trying. That’s more than you can say for many people who have good intentions but never actually swing their leg over the top tube and ride a bike. We get by with a little help from our friends (if you’re lucky enough to have them). And during this horrible, exhausting, and deadly pandemic, we could all probably use a little more help from them, and from having more friends; I know I could. It’s hard to make bike friends when you’re locked down or supposed to be distancing from everyone with a pulse. Other buzz words like authentic, genuine, and telling one’s truth come to mind when reading this book.
If there’s anything to critique about Heft, it could be the writing style. At times it felt a bit rambling with run-on sentences, but I assume that was a stylistic chioce. I found it grew on me. It felt conversational, more personal and relatable (there’s another buzz word, but one that rings true). At times it was a bit confusing of how the timeline of his stories jumped around a bit. He left some things out; for example, he mentions his wife and kids, but we seldom get much insight or their point of view. They’re ancillary characters, and maybe that’s how it was in reality. And the ending both felt a bit anticlimatic and left me wanting more.
But hey, what do I know? I’m not a published author or English professor. Life is messy like that, incomplete, snapshots, not tied up in a neat bow. This is not an autobiography. I read the book not as an example of fine literature, as a cautionary tale, not the field guide mentioned in the subtitle, and also as inspirational. If an overweight, out of shape, booze- and cigarette-addicted guy can go from zero to hero on a bike, well, maybe I can use that inspiration to try a bit harder and do a little better myself. And also finish my damn book!
Here’s the thing about Mike Magnuson, and me, and probably you, too: We’re all works in progress. It’s easy to judge others, particularly when they write honestly about their lives and don’t live up to some perfect ideal. But if we’re truthful, we can admit that no one is perfect, and while some of us excel at a few things, there are plenty more where we just suck. I say this because I read more about Mike after the book, and well, he still has more to go on his journey. I wish him well. Also, because it’d be great if Mike edited my book, or at least read it and told me it wasn’t all crap and might have a chance at publication. (I’m not holding my breath; what does he care about little ol’ unpublished, unknown me, 16 years of life after Heft and several other books later?)
Like Mike, you and I — we all have one thing in common:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.— Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”
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