If there is any universal trigger of nostalgia in the United States, it is the Golden Years of the 1950s. Glamorized to this day, the innocence of youth, the music on the radio, and of course, the tons of steel molded into cars are some of the most common visuals associated with the period. DeSotos, Hudsons, Chryslers, Lincolns, and all other manner of road behemoths piloted the burgeoning highways of America, guzzling gas and fueling the joy the driving every mile of the way. Simply a beautifully written novella, Jack Cady’s 1993 The Night We Buried Road Dog reflects back upon the era to evoke a similar nostalgia, and in the process touches upon aspects more intrinsic to the motion and direction of the human spirit.
The Night We Buried Road Dog is the story of Jed and his life in small town Montana circa 1961. He and his friend Jesse both car junkies, the hammer of pistons on the open road is their religion. So in love with automobiles, when Jesse’s decrepit Hudson gets too old, they bury it in his front yard, complete with a tombstone and epitaph. But Jesse does not spend long without a car, a giant Lincoln is soon burning rubber beneath his feet. The highways of the night forever calling their name, mile after mile is racked up by the pair. But everywhere they go, they see markers and signs left by the mysterious Road Dog—a man some think is real, and others just a legend of heartland USA’s open highways. One night driving home, an even more mysterious thing happens: a ghost car flashes past, and in its wake the mystery of the Road Dog deepens.
A poignant piece of nostalgia as much as it is hardwired into the subconscious of being human, The Night We Buried Road Dog is a gorgeous novella. The prose not lush and flowing as one might imagine given the adjective, rather it effortlessly outlays a reflective yearning difficult to capture with words.
“We drove steady through the early-summer morning. The Desoto hung in around eighty, which was no more than you'd want, considering the suspension. Rangeland gave way to cropland. The radio plugged away with western music, beef prices, and an occasional preacher saying, "Grace" and "Gimmie." Highway 2 rolled straight ahead, sometimes rising gradual, so that cars appeared like rapid-running spooks out of the blind entries. There'd be a little flash of sunlight from a windshield. Then a car would appear over the rise, and usually it was wailing.”
Likewise, it is full of phrasing and similes that go beyond surface meaning.
“With his car dead, Jesse had to find a set of wheels. He swapped an old hay rake and a gang of discs for a 49 Chevrolet.
"It wouldn't pull the doorknob off a cathouse," he told me. "It's just to get around in while I shop."”
The tone fully nostalgic right down to period words (like “wailing”), Cady looks back into his youth with a mindset represented by a set of symbols wholly different than today’s. Cars remain a status symbol, but the innocence of the times and the freedom of being able to buy mammoth hunks of mobile steel for driving pleasure without a concern for fuel or economy sets itself apart from the spirit of life these days. Describing his inspiration in the novella’s introduction, Cady writes:
"This story grew out of a trip through Montana, a trip that reminded me of many years spent on the road, reminded me of the power of the American land, and recalled the passions of youth. As the story grew I knew that it carried a sort of magic that very lucky writers get to deal with perhaps once or twice in their lives."
It is thus that The Night We Buried Road Dog features the reality behind those sad ballads that played off lovers dying in car accidents, the dickering at used car lots, and most importantly, the relationship between restlessness and the open road, the exploration of speed and freedom, as well as the human tendency toward for self-destruction.
In the end, The Night We Buried Road Dog is a ghost story that looks back with bittersweet memories to the glory days of Americana. Not horror or B-move entertainment, Cady uses the motif along metaphorical lines, telling the affective tale of Jed’s youth and he and Jesse’s love affair with the American automobile. Tugging deep at the heart, the prose takes the reader for a ride down deserted highways and tunnels of night, through powerful friendships and the memories of youth past. Simply an unforgettable read.