I like to read Michael Perry’s books about life in rural and small-town Wisconsin because I recognize the places and people in his essays. When I say that I recognize these places and people, I mean this quite literally. My niece sang in a choir with Perry’s parents, my parents buy meat from the same one-eyed butcher who processes Perry’s pork, and my mother once took a writing workshop with Perry. Thus I was surprised, a couple of years ago, when I encountered a review of one of his books in the New York Times or when I saw him on the list of scheduled speakers for Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing.
It’s not Perry’s writing ability that engenders the surprise. Indeed, he writes with well-timed humor and thoughtful poignancy. It’s that his books produce a particular satisfaction in me that other readers won’t necessarily share: the pleasure of judging how well he describes a world that I know well. His latest book, Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, is no exception. When Perry invokes the smell of fresh tires at Farm & Fleet, I’m there. When he describes his father towing a cow down a country road, I know exactly what that road looks like.
But the number of readers who have this experience is not enough to generate a book contract with HarperCollins. This has made me wonder about the broader appeal of Perry’s books to readers who don’t have family in Bloomer, Wisconsin. Part of the appeal, I imagine, has to do with the genre in which Perry writes and part of it with his credentials as a chronicler of rural life.
Perry writes in a well-worn genre that was launched upon the waters of Walden Pond when Henry David Thoreau set off to suck the marrow out of life. Call it the “Experiential Narrative Essay Collection.” When Barbara Kingsolver resolves to eat only local foods for a whole year, Bill Bryson dons his backpack to hit the Appalachian Trail, or Michael Pollan decides to build a cabin, this is the kind of book that results. I’m most familiar with books that record experiments in rural living, but the genre has a broad range; some interesting recent examples including A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.
Coop records Perry’s experiences over a year in which he and his wife made a small foray into raising hogs and chickens and concurrently added a second child to their family. It records these experiences, interspersed with memoirs of Perry’s childhood. As he farms, he thinks about his experience growing up on a farm. As he parents, he reflects on his own family, which included sixty foster children, many with severe disabilities. Even as he fills pages with memoir, though, the central narrative of the book is about the economic triumph of feeding day-old bread to his hogs or teaching his six-year-old daughter to cut hay for her guinea pig. What do readers find so satisfying in reading about other people’s experiments in living? Why should I care how Perry constructs a “chicken tractor” or whether he allows his daughter to watch the hogs being slaughtered?
The answer I have come to is that this genre appeals to two desires often frustrated by fiction of the past century, the desire for narrative closure and the desire for a trusting relationship with a chatty narrator. Surprisingly, Coop serves some of the same functions as nineteenth-century novels. In the Experiential Narrative Essay Collection, there is a strong narrative arc that takes the reader through trial and perhaps tragedy, but invariably ends happily. Kingsolver’s garden doesn’t wither in a terrible drought, Bryson doesn’t get mauled by bears, Pollan doesn’t fall off a ladder to his death, and Perry doesn’t abandon his wife and children for a motorcycle gang. If the author has survived the experience to write about it, we are confident as readers that the story will turn out tolerably well. Coop, in fact, narrates a terrible tragedy for a close member of Perry’s family. Another book might have been written with this tragedy at its center, but that was not the project on which Perry had embarked. I read Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, in part, for the pleasure of knowing that everything will be happily resolved by the final page. Reading Perry and others in this genre, I have the same confidence.
Perry is skillful at creating narrative tension and resolution, but he also revives the pleasure of the chatty narrator who tells us what he thinks. And what we should think. My students roll their eyes when we reach the famous chapter 17 in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, “In Which the Story Pauses A Little,” and the narrator gives us paragraph upon paragraph of commentary on novelistic craft, or when, after hundreds of pages of build-up, Jane Eyre announces: “Reader, I married him.” I love these moments of narrative directness. It implies a kind of friendship between author and reader, a bond of trust. I also enjoy the intellectual puzzles created by the unresolved plots and unreliable narrators of twentieth-century fiction, but in the abandonment of the all-knowing narrator, something has been lost.
Narrators who speak directly to readers are few and far between in recent fiction. For the associated pleasures, we must now turn to the essayist. Remembering his experiences haying, Perry tells us that “If you’re going to train your youngster in tractor driving, hay raking is a pretty good first assignment.” When he watches one of his hogs devour a rabbit carcass, Perry addresses us with a wink: “Gentle reader, I am not a fellow quick to fold his tent in the face of grotesquery.”
I mentioned above that Perry is a skillful at creating a narrative arc. While he does do an impressive job of stepping back from his year of farming and parenting to reflect on his experiences, the volume also stitches together repurposed set-pieces from magazine articles, comedy routines, and spots for NPR. There are times when the stitching is too obvious. The first chapter, for example, begins with a reflection on the “rustic maneuver know as the ‘farmer snort.”” The bit is amusing—just the thing to pull out for the road show—but irrelevant to the broader narrative of the volume or even the smaller point he’s making in that chapter.
This stylistic fault, however, draws attention to a key strength of Perry’s writing. Whereas Kingsolver, Bryson, and Pollan are well-established writers of comfortable means, Perry is making a narrow living by his craft. My neighbor, a poet-gardener who built a backyard cabin a number of years ago with hand tools, snorted over the architect Pollan employed and the $13,000 price tag for his cabin. One of the remarkable aspects of Coop is that it narrates an economic struggle to live intentionally. It is and isn’t a lifestyle choice. As Perry makes clear throughout the book, he not especially well-off. His wife is homeschooling their older daughter and taking care of the livestock while he tours around performing, hosting workshops, and promoting his books. And when home, he devotes much of his time to the writing that he will later promote.
Perry is honest and wistful about the financial and personal calculus this involves. The book ends with a candid reflection on the difficulty of making a living writing about one’s interesting life when much of one’s time is devoted to writing and trying to sell one’s writing. He says: “The truth is, this year has stretched my wife beyond anything that is fair…. All those times I told smart-aleck stories about farming, while back home my wife fed the pigs.” Throughout the volume, it’s clear that Perry’s work as a writer is paying the bills, but also creating mild tension within his marriage. He writes about a time his wife suggests that he is using his work to evade his responsibilities at home; later in the book, he quotes her saying in response to his idea that they acquire sheep: “I have this vision of you in Des Moines, talking about writing and raising sheep—meanwhile, I’m running through the brush with a howling six-month-old under one arm and dragging a bawling seven-year-old behind me with the other arm while we try to get the sheep back inside a hole in the cobbled-up fence.” He reflects: “This is very hard on my pride, and pretty much on the money.”
Coop shares one final characteristic with nineteenth-century novels: it combines an essentially comic narrative with recurring serious and even tragic undertones. There is the aforementioned tragedy that threatens to whisk away his farm in a tornado of grief. And there is an undercurrent of serious spiritual searching as Perry reflects on the faithful religious practices of his parents and the lost faith of his childhood and adolescence. Even as he no longer believes, he writes about the life of faith with appreciation and even longing and wonders what kind of church he should be attending with his family.
I’ll probably still read some dark, inconclusive, and disorienting fiction this summer and I’ll probably also pick another novel by Anthony Trollope off the shelf. But I’m glad for the experiential narrative essayists like Perry who give me hope that there are still people out there, sucking the marrow out of life, and living to tell the tale.