Those of us who have traveled far from home (and it is a significant percentage these days) cannot but wonder from time to time whether those journeys have enriched or impoverished our lives. Is it better to see the world and lose your own backyard or put down roots and get to know a place with the kind of intimacy that might lead to deeper understanding?
Michael Perry has raised these kinds of questions in his compelling memoir, Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (HarperCollins). He is the local kid who returned home to rediscover his community with fresh insight and compassion. No doubt, his experiences were dramatized by his work as a volunteer fireman and emergency medical technician, which takes him into the lives of his neighbors in powerful, often tragic ways.
The town is New Auburn, Wisconsin. The population, as the book's title indicates, is just under 500. The cast of characters is almost as remarkable as the number of traffic accidents and fires Perry and his team of emergency workers encounter.
You will meet a big fellow, the one-eyed "Beagle," whose ex-wives both work at the same convenience store where Beagle buys his chewing tobacco. (It is awkward, to say the least, but Beagle is philosophical: "They know my brand.") You will meet Herbie, a hardworking farmer and rock-buster who designed the "hoverless hovercraft" that became legend in New Auburn. You will meet hunters, loggers, farmers, and working-class people of all types whose idea of a night out is heading to a local buffet of coleslaw, beans, and buttered bread. The author calls his neighbors "my people."
Perry has a fine eye for detail, but his activities focus the mind. How do you forget pulling a teenager out of a pile of twisted metal as her father, looking on, tries to console and encourage his dying child? How do you forget a 300-pound woman who gets wedged between a toilet and a bathtub only to puke on you as you try to dislodge her? And how do you forget your own brother or sister-in-law, one killed fighting a fire, the other in a car wreck? You don't.
Not many of us could handle the routines described here with Perry's humor or ease. He observes, for example, that for all the vivid death and tragedy he has encountered, he has never thrown up while making a medical or fire call. He and his brothers, also firefighters, have an understated Midwestern quality about them -- their anger and their love demonstrated in subtle silences that carry a world of meaning to those in tune with their private, quiet places.
In a chapter titled "Death," Perry describes a group of older women talking about a teenager's death a year earlier. The ladies discuss the matter openly in a local diner, mentioning with special emphasis a rose laid symbolically on an empty chair at what would have been the girl's high school graduation. A truck driver who stumbles across the conversation asks if they are talking about the loss of a child. When they answer yes, the man replies simply, "You never get over it." The driver does not speak again, but Perry watches through the window as the man leaves the diner, stops in the middle of the highway, right on the centerline, and wipes his eyes with his sleeve. Perry is not unmoved:
"I think of that guy whenever a celebrity dies and I hear some talking head in the media say we have lost a part of ourselves. You have to figure that's a little tough for him to swallow, when he knows what it is to grieve a child, all alone in the middle of the highway. This is a grief neither assuaged nor exalted by the attention of the nation. This is a grief that refuses to arrange itself around prime time."
Perry's is a timely book, particularly given the attention lavished on emergency workers after 9/11. Though the world he describes is a long way from New York City or D.C., the courage and tragedy he sees in New Auburn are not so different from what we witnessed as a nation over a year ago. Perry and his fellow emergency workers go about their business without fanfare. Most of them will not even be celebrated outside of their close circle of friends and family. But they have more important reasons to act courageously: The people trapped in the burning house or the shattered vehicle are often not strangers. They are neighbors, even friends.
It took 9/11 to remind many Americans that our real heroes are ordinary people who, with all their flaws and idiosyncrasies, find it in themselves to do extraordinary, selfless things. It happens every day, even in a little town, population: 485. -- George Shadroui
Dateline: Forty-Five, South Carolina, population unknown, but count on Mendal Dawes if it's 1968. Mendal's father is trying to romance his high school sweetheart, who happens also to be Mendal's grade-school teacher, Lola Suber. (Mendal's mother has skipped town and moved to Nashville to become "the next Patsy Cline.") During one of his classroom show-and-tells, a clueless Mendal reads from his father's "long-lost" letter purportedly written by Hélöise to Abelard, or maybe it's Abelard to Hélöise. ("'These were French people writing in English, I suppose,' Ms. Suber said. ... [Mendal] said, 'They were smart, I believe.'") Classmates giggle. Lola fumes. Later, at a parent-teacher conference between Dawes and Lola, Mendal is asked to wait in the car while parent and teacher do more than confer. But Dawes is no deadbeat dad. He's handed the boy the keys and told him, "There's a beer in the glove compartment, son." Mendal is 9 years old.
This then is very not New Auburn, but it is the opening story, "Show-and-Tell," out of a collected 14 stories (capped by the fictional thank-you speech "Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award") in George Singleton's The Half-Mammals of Dixie (Algonquin).
Forty-Five: former textile center currently down in the dumps and present/former home to adulterers, born-agains, neighborly scam artists, pseudo folk artists, land-grabbers, alcoholics, chain-smokers, goofballs, oddballs, one mentally defective jailbird, one "anti-PR" PR smart aleck, one baby-toting mountain mama, and a handful of semi- to bona fide success stories who may or may not be suffering inside intolerable marriages and enduring the general mess they've made of their lives.
Standard short-story stuff? On the one hand: yes. In Singleton's hands: mostly no. These characters are too quick with the wisecracks, too plugged into or fed up with the mass-market junk culture of the New South to qualify for admission to the aw-shucks school of contemporary Southern letters. For a more accurate lay of the land, think Richard Ford territory but near to or decidedly the wrong side of the tracks. Selflessness, heroics? Wrong. Three case histories to prove it from Singleton's well-reported 14:
1) Your slow death of choice is being a vendor at South Carolina's unofficial pastime verging on statewide insanity: "collectibles," aka flea markets. The problem/solution in "What Slide Rules Can't Measure": "If a radio's nearby playing old country songs, go ahead and put a pistol to your temple."
2) The problem (in "Answers"): Your marriage is in trouble, your book on that whiner of biblical proportions, Job, is going nowhere, and your irrational outbursts inside the Winn-Dixie have got to stop. The solution: Sit down with your wife at your At-Home Marriage Repair kit's 100 questions and start out, the both of you, with a glass of water. Move immediately, both of you, to several twin glasses of straight bourbon. You will learn: Communication's not the only issue. It's that sound in your head that no one can hear that's the real question that no one can answer. So look: You're screwed.
3) The problem (in "Page-a-Day"): You're an ex-pharmaceutical-company salesman pretending to be an untutored "visionary" artist, and sales to an eager gallery owner in Charleston are good. A scrawny mother with child shows up out of nowhere on your studio doorstep. She's asking you to "breathe" on her kid to cure the baby's thrush. You're thinking this has got to be a put-on. This is Real McCoys, Andy Griffith material. You're unthinkingly about to get it on with that gallery woman. You're wife's unthinkingly about to do the same with a police deputy. That poor mother, though, wandering the highway, is about to announce to your wife, "No man knows where he's going, either." It's a declaration from an unlikely source, but it may be the sum-total understanding achieved by anybody in The Half-Mammals of Dixie.
So meet the neighbors, even friends, maybe yourself. Singleton makes learning fun. No sirens. None needed. But conditions: critical.
-- Leonard Gill
Tuesday, November 12th, 6:30 p.m.
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Wednesday, November 13th, 5 p.m.
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