California Dreaming by Lawrence Donegan

A Scotsman who heads to California to become a used-car salesman. The original American dream.

California Dreaming is the tale of Lawrence Donegan, an ex bass player turned journalist, living out a grim life in Glasgow. He’s always dreamed of going to live in America but it’s only when an old friend turns up and hugs him in the street (hug? In Glasgow?) that he gets his chance – his friend now runs a silicon chip company in Los Angeles and offers Lawrence a job.

Lawrence heads out with his girlfriend and soon discovers that he has no idea at all of what a silicon chip is or what on earth he might be doing in an office full of people who listen to Kenny G. More than that he can’t understand how everyone talks about how much money they make and how much they spent on their cars, homes and hair cuts. He finds himself wondering if he’s the only sane person in a neighbourhood of “..27 Mexican landscape gardeners, one black guy who worked in the cafĂ© on the main street and ten thousand rich white folks with nice tans and big white teeth.”

He soon discovers that his American dream is to become a used car salesman. This comes about primarily with the ease that he’s talked into buying a car and the profit that the salesman makes. After wading through weeks of bureaucracy to get a salesman licence (?) he’s given a job after 30 seconds at the first place he walks into and is told to get out there and start selling with no training at all.

At first, Lawrence Donegan is the gormless Scotsman, nervous, honest, cynical and distinctly unimpressive in a world of self-confident, plastic Californians. He doesn’t know the first thing about cars or selling and, whilst his honest approach wins the hearts of his customers, none of them feel inclined to draw their wallets out. It’s only after two and half weeks of striking out that he’s given a lesson in how to brown nose his way to the customer’s confidence. He learns to keep silent during the test driver, to answer queries about previous accidents with the rehearsed line ‘well, I don’t know but they sure put it back together nice’ and to jump up and down in the trunk to show how roomy it is. The customer seems impressed, even though Donegan admits:

“In the circumstances he had every right to suspect I was a smarmy sociopath who might well attack him with a wheel jack if he decided not to buy the car. But all he did was laugh. He seemed to like me – or at least, he liked this version of me.

I was amazed. So this was how it was done! This was how you sold a car – with no inhibitions or self-consciousness… Sure, some of my friends had serious jobs as doctors and journalists and art directors and potential computer millionaires but, secretly, they would have given up everything to be under the Californian sun, bouncing up and down in a car boot. Wouldn’t they?”

California Dreaming is one of the funniest, illuminating travel books out there and one that goes to heart of Californian culture and lays bare all the hypocrisy and values – or lack of them. Donegan hangs out with his buddies, the other car salesmen and it’s only when he’s persuaded to go along to a strip club with them that their conversation dries up. They’re not his friends, they’re just people he talks with about car deals that could have been.

With real dedication, Lawrence Donegan tracks down the greats of the past of car dealing and learns the secrets from them. The butt of everyone’s jokes and considered the worst car salesmen they’ve seen in 20 years, he actually learns how it’s done. He makes the most of his cute, Scottish accent, starts complimenting customers on their sexy dress or stylish hair cut, learns to stay silent through the test drive and, the key to success, to look like he couldn’t care less.

“Passion was definitely beyond me but not giving a shit was right up my street.”

Lawrence Donegan is a funny, honest guy who takes to his new life in California like a duck to an oil slick. As he gets into the vibe of superficially, unscrupulous flattery and outright lying, we follow him step by step. He recounts the best stories of each customer that comes his way and we’re left cheering as single mothers reach for their cheque books to pay $2000 more than they should for their son’s first car.

He starts selling cars even to friends he meets at social affairs, makes his incredibly loyal girlfriend listen to his escapades of cheating the general public out of their money and begins to win the respect and admiration of his colleagues. His American Dream has come true.

California Dreaming is also the tale of Donegan’s erratic self-awareness though as his conscience begins to catch up with his wallet. He begins to observe how his own values have changed – when he sees a colleague turn a 6 over to a 9 on a price tag as a moneyed customer comes along, he laughs. He notices how he rationalises the morality of any situation to suit him and how he takes advantage of any weakness – like when a nervous librarian walks in.

“When I told her I had another customer who was interested in buying the car (omitting to mention that this had been six weeks ago) she became fleetingly decisive. ‘Okay, I’ll buy it,’ she said, looking to me for reassurance.

‘A wise choice, I replied, too venal to tell her she was making a terrible mistake.’

The pinch finally comes when a couple walk in with the intention of spending $5000 on a truck. They’ve just arrived in California and want to make some money to build their own home back in the San Juan islands. Donegan established that they have a common bond in searching for the California Dream and proceeds to sell them a truck for $16000. They agree to pay in installements and only after they’ve signed do they realise that with the interest and taxes they’ll eventually be paying $28,000. What does it mean? They ask Donegan. He finds the courage to look them in the eye and make some excuse about the American car industry but inside he has a far sharper reply.

“What does it mean, Bill? I’ll tell you what it means. It means that I’m a complete and utter bastard.”

Donegan finally comes back to himself and makes good for his sins as much as he can, rectifying a few of the worst deals out of his own pocket and makes his girlfriend proud of him. He tells the tale with no attempt to hide his sins or how low he’s fallen and his candid humour makes California Dreaming a travel classic of a latter day immigrant trying to make it in America.