For Willamette Week, the early '80s was an age when giants walked the earth. Every week, readers could pick up the paper in its sassy new tabloid format and find stories by Susan Orlean, Larry Colton and G. Pascal Zachary, who would go on to write books, as well as articles for The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. Another writer at the time, Mark Christensen, wrote City Life, WW's weekly humor column filled with memories of growing up in the westside suburb of Raleigh Hills in the 1960s. Christensen would later cover the media for Rolling Stone, write a book about TV ratings and publish a few novels.
In his latest book, Build the Perfect Beast, Christensen turns his attention to a project that consumed his life for most of the '90s: building the coolest car ever, a 700-horsepower suicide machine that could travel 1,000 miles on one tank of earth-friendly natural gas. When another WW alum, former restaurant reviewer Gideon Bosker, offers $100,000 toward the project, Christensen is off to the races.
To design the car, he hires Nick Pugh, a brilliant but emotionally unstable whiz kid from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., who subsists on cereal draws cars that look like sci-fi art designs. Then Christensen recruits a colorful lineup of pals from his Beaverton High School days to help finance and run the company.
It looks so easy--until Christensen slowly comes to realize the cost of fabricating a working prototype of Pugh's design, the Xeno III. Bosker's cash (which never materializes, incidentally) won't cover more than a fraction of the cost. By project's end, Christensen will sell his house, his 1964 Porsche and 80 percent of his shares in a valuable patent Pugh develops to integrate pressurized natural-gas tanks in a car chassis.
Christensen's book hooks readers right from the prologue, set in Los Angeles in 1999: Christensen and his 12-year-old son, Matt, take the unfinished Xeno III for a test drive. The Xeno's brakes don't work, and just as Christensen opens the throttle in what he thinks is a deserted alley, a packed Toyota pulls in front of the speeding car. End of prologue.
From there, the book flashes back and forth between Portland in the 1950s and '60s (the formative years of Christensen's lifelong romance with the automobile) and California in the '90s, where he and the Xeno team struggle to finance and build the supercar of the new millennium.
The flashbacks are relevant because the Christensen of the '90s tries to accomplish essentially the same thing he fails so spectacularly to do as a teenager in the '60s: build the car of his dreams with little practical knowledge of what goes on under the hood and even less money. In his youth, Christensen is the guy holding the shoplight while someone else gets greasy; as an adult, he's the guy holding together the fragile egos of the Xeno's designer and the company's chief financial officer.
The project bogs down in the mid-'90s as the Xeno team toys with the idea of using hydrogen for fuel instead of natural gas. The car continues to collect dust as the company's finance officer tries to sell the natural-gas industry on a $21 million program to promote its product as the automotive fuel of the 21st century. Neither plan works, but it gives Christensen's readers interesting insight into that dizzy age before the dot-com crash, when fast-talking entrepreneurs thought they could make millions without a real budget or a real business plan--or even a real business, for that matter.
Build the Perfect Beast is filled with larger-than-life characters, whose essence Christensen often captures in a single sentence: "Loog ate from the pan and knew few car problems that could not be solved with a crescent wrench, a case of beer, a ball-peen hammer and the words Reef on it." None of these characters, though, is more fascinating than Christensen's father, a gifted ophthalmologist who graduated from Oregon State University and performed the first cornea transplant in state history (a small fact Mark learned only after his father's death in 1999). Christensen worships his dad, and themes of success vs. failure and fatherly approval vs. disappointment recur throughout the book, informing Christensen's relationships with his own children.
Unfortunately, the book is also full of spelling errors, primarily embarrassing homophones, though many proper names have also been butchered. Most of these mistakes, Christensen says, were caught in the manuscript but never corrected by the publisher. And the author never received a copy of the book's galleys to make revisions before publication. "This is why God created copy editors," Christensen now laments. (The publisher's copy editor could not be reached for this article.)
A few errant typos can't alter the fact, though, that Build the Perfect Beast is an exhilarating, sometimes heart-rending performance. This isn't so much a book about building a high-tech hot rod as it is about the personal price of pursuing a dream without compromises.
By Mark Christensen
(St. Martin's Press, 381 pages, $26.95)
The completed Xeno III went on public display for the first time Jan. 26 at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Photos of the finished car can be seen at www.nickpugh.com .