'The Long Haul': A trucker's tales of the road

Finn Murphy, author of "The Long Haul."

The Long Haul

A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road

By Finn Murphy.

W.W. Norton.

256 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by

Jim Higgins

No matter how spiffy our facades, some people see us in crisis, at our worst: our doctor, our lawyer, our psychologist - and, as Finn Murphy details in his entertaining memoir, The Long Haul, our movers.

"Shippers are frequently not at their best on moving day," he writes, describing the folks whose worldly goods he packs up and schleps across the country in a Freightliner. "Shippers can be testy, upset, suspicious, downright hostile, and occasionally pleasant and relaxed."

The Long Haul can be read and enjoyed as an adventure story and as a peek into an occupation whose practitioners we see rolling down the highway. Murphy opens with an account of driving 35 tons of tractor-trailer down a steep Rocky Mountain grade "in a miasma of fog and wind and snow." Enduring CB radio insults from other truckers who think he's going too slow, Murphy flips through a mental checklist of the ways this descent could end badly. "The blood soaking into the pavement could be mine at any minute."

In his final chapter, "The Great White Mover," Murphy recalls the feisty, dying widow who sent him barreling across the country with a full load of broken Native American artifacts against a severe, unexplained deadline and, the mover discovers, a remarkable payoff at the end. If The Long Haul is ever turned into a cable TV series, this will be one of its signature episodes.

As a white man who finished three years of college before turning to trucking, he's an anomaly in his world and aware of it: "Working people are suspicious of my diction and demeanor, and white-collar people wonder what a guy like me, who looks and sounds like them, is doing driving a truck and moving furniture for a living." (Beyond early anecdotes about love of both the road and his independence, Murphy doesn't really explain why.)

Books matter to Murphy: He calls attention to a clerk in a Vermont general store reading Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Sadly, this man who moves the families of high-end executives sees that "books are completely disappearing." Forget the book-burning firemen of Fahrenheit 451: "The interactive electronics took care of it without the violence."

Packing and hauling tons of stuff hundreds of miles to new homes has made Murphy a believer in nonattachment. Movers rarely become collectors of anything, he points out. "What my customers need to know is that it's not the stuff, but the connection with people and family and friends that matter."

This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.