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Reviewing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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May 25th, 2014
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  1. When the editors of the late and lamented Mountain Gazette of Denver (probably the best magazine of its kind ever published in America—in fact the only one of its kind) asked me to write a review of Robert Pirsig’s book, I agreed to do it but subcontracted the assignment to Dave Harleyson.
  2. For two reasons: first, I had already written a favorable review of the book for the New York Times—I called it a “splendid psycho-melodrama”—and wasn’t about to praise another writer’s work twice in the same year; second, I thought it appropriate that Pirsig’s much-esteemed and best-selling book be subjected to critical scrutiny by an expert.
  3. My friend Dave is an expert. He’s been a member of the Southern Arizona Road Huns (a motorcycle social club) for fifteen years, makes his living as a dealer, pimp, and freelance mechanic, and has studied the arts of literary composition for two years at the state institution in Florence, Arizona. (Armed robbery, freshman English, aggravated assault.)
  4. I met Dave the first time at the Ranchhouse Bar near Tucson, where he and his fellow Huns often convene on weekday afternoons. Dave is easy to spot: he’s the large red-bearded gentleman at the pool table, a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his left arm, wearing purple shades, a sleeveless shirt, a Levis vest with a dragon embroidered on the back, original blue jeans dark with grease, and black engineer’s boots. You don’t see many of those any more. The fat leather wallet in his hip pocket he keeps chained to his belt.
  5. When I gave him a copy of Zen, etc., to read he seemed at first reluctant—“What’s this shit, man?”—but finally consented to take on the job if I kept his name out of the magazine. He was still wanted in Denver at the time. He would write the review, he said, but only for fun, not for money. I had offered him my usual commission: one tenth of 1 percent.
  6. Six months later he produced the review. Good help is hard to find these days. This is what he wrote:
  8. ZAMM
  10. Sorry to have been so fucking late with this here book report, man, but I been having trouble with my transmission. Can’t get my ass in gear. Haw Haw. This here book Zen and the Art of Fucking Motorcycle Maintenance or I call in ZAMM for short has some interesting things to read about motorcycle maintenance but the trouble is the author don’t give us much technical information about his own machine, just some little hints here and there, so I guess he was riding a Honda “Dream” of before 1970, probly the 250 cc. model, but no motorcycle I ever heard of and I been fooling around with bikes since 1950 needs all the fucking obsessive, man, obsessive fucking around with the rear chain and adjusting and oiling that this here Pirsig gives his rear chain. That was a sick bike. Some of his other ideas are funny too, man, like saying a seized-up engine comes from piston expansion caused by too much heat when what he should know is the cause is increased friction due to fucking lack of oil for chrissake. Too much oil on his chain and not enough in the motor, man. Jesus. There’s lots more theory in ZAMM but not much practical fucking sense. He uses his bike headlight to light his camp at night to cook his supper and eat, man, but for chrissake with the tiny toy battery on the old Honda that was a dumb fucking idea, man. Later on this Pirsig writes for ten pages about how to remove a broken screw from the block but not once does he tell you about the simple easy way which is the old Ezi-Out screw remover. In fact as far as I could figure out, man, I don’t think he ever did get that broken fucking screw out. Also there’s something queer about his trouble-finding method which is he don’t seem to understand that riding his bike from Chicago up into the Rockies in Wyoming and Idaho caused the overrich fuel mixture because of the high altitude which is a beginner’s mistake. He writes a lot about a remedy for engine trouble called Gumption but the only product by that name I ever heard of was something my grandmother bless her holy gash used to clean the kitchen sink with man, back in Perth Amboy, and I wouldn’t tell my worst fucking enemy, man, to put any of those gunks in his motor. If you take care of your motor you don’t need any fucking artificial additives for chrissake except gas and oil. Sweet motherfucking jesus, man. Then he gives up tips on setting up your own home mechanic’s workshop but forgets to tell you that the most important of all which naturally is a fucking big shade tree in your backyard and a good trained hungry fucking Doberman attack dog to rip the head off any cocksucking motherfucker lays a hand on your tools. The way he uses to judge how tight a bolt is is not very good when he writes that a bolt is either finger-tight or snug or tight. That’s crude, man. Somebody should maybe tell that poor fucker about torque wrenches. All in all I’d say though ZAMM has some usefull stuff for you if you are a biker, man, that it is scattered out through too many pages and there’s a lot of fuzzy philosophizing and too much half-assed mystical fucking ancient history, man, keeps getting in the way of the book as a whole. If you are serious about reading a book about motorcycles you should get a regular service manual for your particular bike and stick to it and if you want a general information book on how to do it with machines, this guy Abbey who hangs around here a lot says a good book is the Velvet Monkey Wrench, and the Guide, man, for the Complete Idiot by John Muir and A Bleak Week at Tinder Creek by Annie Dillard, man, and the Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde but I ain’t got the time to read any more books myself and don’t recommend any of them.
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