Once, at a party, I was chatting with a therapist who told me he recommended Michael Perry’s Truck to several patients (he had also recommended Eat, Pray, Love, because he felt his patients needed to read about someone who knew how to “let it all hang out”). I was instantly in line with his books-as-medicine approach. I administer this form of treatment myself sometimes. Under this paradigm, Sylvia Plath is seldom recommended and Ian McEwan’s Atonement should be read only under the direct supervision of a trained librarian.
I have recently taken to prescribing Michael Perry’s Population 485; meeting your neighbors one siren at a time. Perry (sadly, no relation) is clever without being biting, he has affection for his subjects and an irresistable populist appeal. His town is New Auburn, Wisconsin, and it has seen better days. As an EMT and member of the volunteer fire fighters, he sees his neighbors in their foibles, their hardships and their final life-ebbing moments. He sees the good, the bad and the violently vomitous. And he writes with wonder and compassion for it all. A friend who hails from Big Bend, Wisconsin (population 900 – a veritable metropolis!) suggests that Perry does for Wisconsin what James Herriot did for Yorkshire: he offers a gentle and loving portrayal of his community.
Perry’s style reminds me of Bill Bryson’s micro-macro-micro technique. Let me explain: On a drive down Main Street, Perry sees a neighbor and commences to tell you about him, (micro) then backs up and gives you a history of humankind’s relationship to fire (macro) then zooms back in on the individual’s story, (micro) all in a seamless, graceful fashion. You go from the farmer who worked his fingers to the nubs putting a large family through college, out yonder to the myth of Prometheus, then back home to the barn again. Each person has a rich, mysterious story, and each individual history is part of a landscape of tales. Perry’s attachment to his family and town, and the faithful service he provides for them, makes comforting, absorbing reading. I recommend it to anyone suffering the pangs of homesickness for small town life. Take this book, a hot beverage and a long rest under a feather quilt. Don’t forget to call me in the morning.