So when you're starting to put together a list of nonfiction books that have been seminal to your adulthood and your continuing evolution as a person, all the nonfiction books, in short, that you'd want to take with you to a desert island, where do you start?
Well, I'm starting with Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.
I first read this book right around the time it came out (2003), at a time when I was really just starting to read a lot of nonfiction. That also coincided with a time in publishing when memoirs were all the rage, so there were a lot of them about and I used them as a sort of gateway drug into nonfiction. I wonder how many people find themselves reading nonfiction that way, incidentally. Novels, novels, novels, one memoir, POOF: nonfiction reader.
And what a great memoir this was to read:
"There is a road below, a slim strip of county two-lane, where the faded blacktop runs east-west, then bends--at Jabowski's Corner--like an elbow. In the crook of the elbow, right in the space where you would cradle a baby, is a clot of people. My mother is there, and my sister, and several volunteer firefighters, and I have just joined them, and we are all on our knees, kneeling in a ring around a young girl who has been horribly injured in a car wreck. She is crying out, and we are doing what we can, but she feels death pressing at her chest. She tells us this, and we deny it, tell her no, no, help is on the way." (p. 2.)
It's Michael Perry's story of returning to his rural Wisconsin hometown to write and rejoin his first community, not least as one of its volunteer first responders. Not only was it an example of a near-perfect memoir, but it was also a perfect time for me to be reading it. I live about fifteen minutes away from the house where I grew up, which was on a farm, and although now I live in the city (or I should say, a suburban outpost of a nearby city), I recognize the rural surroundings Perry describes. What is harder for me to understand is his desire to re-integrate with his former community in a very visceral way: as a person who shows up to help when any kind of distress call goes out. It's not that I don't want to be of help. I try very hard to be of help to family members and people I know well. But I have never been very good at being part of a community. I never fit in my farm community, really, and I don't fit in my city community, either, although I love my neighborhood with its 1950s houses and its unfussy vibe.
So here's Perry, offering to show up in the area of New Auburn, Wisconsin, and to try in his role as a member of the volunteer Fire Department to help anyone who calls, in any location:
"'Get out of bed!' my high school science teacher used to say. 'People die in bed!' Truth be told, ambulance calls have taught me otherwise. People tend to die in the bathroom. They tip over while groping the medicine cabinet for Maalox, or straining on the pot just enough to blow a leaking abdominal aneurysm. Rare is the EMT who hasn't performed CPR between the tub and the toilet." (p. 133.)
If that doesn't get straight to the point, I don't know what does. I have to respect someone who is willing to answer those calls. So: Writing style? Top-notch. Detailed personal details? Check. A truly kind and generous heart behind the stories? All here. It is, full stop, a great memoir.
But here's another reason I love Michael Perry and his books, and it's more personal.
I was a lot younger when I read this memoir, and I was charmed to think of Perry out there in small-town Wisconsin, living in an old house in New Auburn, and writing and drinking coffee at all hours of the night and day. It seemed like an appealing lifestyle, and I was glad he was living it. And then he wrote another memoir about falling in love (and fixing up an old truck), titled, appropriately, Truck, and then he got married and wrote yet another memoir about being married and having and raising kids (titled Coop, as in chicken). And I read all these books as he wrote them, as well as others that he wrote along the way, including a novel (The Jesus Cow), a YA novel (The Scavengers), and another nonfiction book about the pleasures of reading Montaigne.* And although I was already married when I first found Perry, I kind of grew up with him, and enjoyed reading about his parallel experiences of love, marriage, and adulthood.
But here's the real kicker. Now when I go back and read Population: 485, I'm almost saddened at the picture that it presents because I know it is no longer accurate. He's not living in New Auburn anymore. His life, although he still lives in rural America and writes for a living, is much different than it was when he was writing this book. I feel nostalgia for Michael Perry's life, as written in this memoir, the same way I feel nostalgia when I go through picture books of when the CRjrs were the tiniest of babies.
That sounds so stupid. I'm well aware. It's a sad feeling, but it's a really good feeling. It's like I know Michael, and his family, and the people he writes about. I feel connected to him, as a reader feels connected to a writer, to another human with whom they can feel some sort of communion. And, because I have given this book to other people, and talked about this book with other people, through it, I have also felt communion with other readers.** This is a book that made me realize that I'm never going to fit in with the majority of the communities in which I have to function on a daily basis, but it's okay. Because there is a community out there that love and feel a part of, and that is the amorphous community of READERS.
Oh, I love this book. It's so sad and beautiful and joyful and funny and although I have enjoyed all the rest of Perry's books, I really feel that he put everything into this book and made it a perfect little jewel of literature, akin to Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. It's just good prose:
"Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we live only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go." (p. 178.)
I'm never going to let go of my love for Michael Perry and his perfect memoir Population: 485.
*Another essayist we should tackle together someday, incidentally.
**Most notably, with my dad.