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The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power

by Travis Hugh Culley

trade paperback edition

I picked up The Immortal Class out of curiosity about the stubbly testosterone chic of the bike messenger world. The good news is that this book has plenty of adrenaline, dodging traffic, pushing the limits of physical endurance, that sort of thing. The bad news is that two-thirds of the people who start reading it are never going to get to the good stuff, because it's disorganized and smothered in the sort of pretentious freshman philosophizing caused by too much weed and too little perspective.

It's hard to tell how long Travis Hugh Culley spent as a bike messenger in Chicago, because his narrative jumps all over the place. He got into it because he needed the money, and he stuck with it because he became addicted to the rush. The Immortal Class is a disjointed memoir of his experiences, liberally mixed with incoherent imagery and self-aggrandizing rhetoric.

Culley is at his best when he writes about the everday pain and exhaustion, harassment from cops and building security, and the ongoing low-grade war between messengers and cabbies in Chicago's Loop. His anecdotes are full of jargon and techniques such as drafting -- taking advantage of the suction created in the wake of a large vehicle -- and skitching -- holding onto a car or truck and letting it pull you along, a practice that particularly irritates cabbies.

Unfortunately, the narrative is swamped by Culley's constant railing against our car-dependent, corporate society. His contempt for office workers and corporate culture is a bit rich, given that he was a glorifed corporate errand boy. He does make some good points about the social problems caused by dependence on cars, and he's on the verge of saying something interesting about the clerical temp underclass that lives on the poverty line. However, he shows no understanding of the complexity of these issues, no willingness to compromise, and no sense of humor.

Apparently there are those in the messenger community who regard him as a poser; read the Chicago Reader article "Shoot the Messenger" for background on Culley and his book. The article recommends Rebecca "Lambchop" Reilly's self-published book Nerves of Steel for a more thorough look at the messenger subculture. I'll certainly give it a try if I can dig up a copy.

The Immortal Class would have benefited greatly from a ruthless editor. Culley comes across as a belligerent jerk, but his action sequences are gripping. As a bonus, you will look very trendy while reading this book: the silver-and-grey cover shows a big bike wheel and the author looking cute and standing hipshot with radio and messenger bag. I know this is a shallow metric for a book, but it's a nice change from my usual books, with their dragons, spaceships, and exploding sheep.

Make it easy on yourself. Start with Chapter 8, a terrific description of a very hectic day on the job; it's straightfoward, and stands perfectly well on its own. Then read Chapter 9, about an "alleycat" bike race through the empty streets of pre-dawn Chicago. If you're enjoying it, and you don't mind wading through quite a lot of anti-car rhetoric of varying coherence, read the final few chapters. Then stop.

The gritty biking stuff is a lot of fun, but life's too short to wade through the first seven chapters of narcissistic crap.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
August 2003

trade paperback edition
Publisher: Random House
Date: August 2002
ISBN: 0-375-76024-5
Binding: trade paperback
Pages: 352
Price: US $11.95

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Rebecca "Lambchop" Reilly: Nerves of Steel
  up to review index
Aug 2003 / CMS