So along comes Michael Perry's Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting. You look at the cover. Bald-headed young guy holding a chicken in his arms, his goofy, slightly deranged grin apparently acquired on his escape, unscathed, from a rugby scrum. More of the same, you expect.
The summary at the top of the jacket flap seems to promise it, too:
In over his head with two pigs, a dozen chickens, and a baby due any minute, the acclaimed author of Truck: A Love Story gives us a humorous, heartfelt memoir of a new life in the country.Ah, you tell yourself. I always like reading this sort of book. Gonna be an entertaining read. So you settle in for 350 pages of laughs at thumbs smashed by farm machinery, seat-squirms at the births (probably literally first-hand) of livestock, and moodiness induced by lyrical passages about sunsets, breezes, the undulation of meadows, the cawing of crows, the smell of sod.
You encounter your first little surprise in the prologue's first sentence: "At the earliest edges of my memory, my father is plowing, and I am running behind him." So you amend: Not just a one-year memoir. He's returning to his roots, not inventing roots where none existed.
But that's not right, either -- not entirely, exactly right. Perry's book resists categorization, in ways that must have frustrated the bejeezus out of his editors and marketing-type folks at HarperCollins.
Coop interleaves these strands of plot:
- the loving relationships among Perry, his wife Anneliese, their six-year-old daughter Amy, and their (eventually) newborn infant Jane;
- memories of his boyhood on a family farm;
- reflections on matters of the spirit, a sort of backstory viewed through the lens of a lapsed member of a small religious sect; and yes,
- starting a farm: acquiring (and housing) chickens, growing (and feeding, and feeding, and feeding) pigs, and so on.
Even if the sentiments of domestic life fail to move you, though, prepare yourself to nod in appreciation of Perry's ease with the English language.
As I read, I dog-eared dozens of pages as examples to cite in this review. In the event, the page to which I just opened the book has no dog-ear, though. It's the start of Chapter 5, right at a time in the story's arc when Perry has been regaling us with the saga of Jane's any-day-now birth:
Across the valley, the bare-bone tree line is thickening. The maple leaves are fit to bust but holding fast, this year's greenery still clasped in a tight fetal furl. The bud scales are dark red, infusing the canopy with a rubrous blush, shrouding the hills all smoky maroon. It is mid-afternoon, sunny, and still. I hear sparrows.Oh.
There is a baby on my lap.
That first paragraph treads awfully close to the line of purple (or at least dark-red, rubrous, smoky-maroon) prose. It's saved -- barely -- by that casual bust, where a writer less in control of himself might not have resisted the tug of burst.
But the second short paragraph throws on the brakes, redeeming the nearly hokey springtime-is-icumen-in metaphor with the sudden, stubbornly plain-spoken fact of new birth. Passages like these, yes, may pluck at the heartstrings. But more, they're the product of a writer who knows (probably without thinking) how a reader's mind may turn at each moment -- who knows how to help it turn, without the browbeating of melodrama.
Sometimes Perry recalls details of the adoptive siblings and temporary near-siblings -- over a hundred all told over the years -- with whom he and his generous birth family shared a house and meals, and who wandered into and out of their lives. His parents, it seems, were so well-regarded as parents that various social agencies ensured a changing cast of characters. Many of these children were "special-needs" kids: like Rya, who---
Well, no spoilers. But as with the passage quoted above, Perry manages to tell Rya's story in a manner both matter-of-fact and moving. I think you'll remember Rya.
Now, it's true: Coop is not perfect.
I expect in reading a book like this -- any nonfiction book, for that matter -- to come away knowing some things I didn't know when I walked through the door. But I started to lose patience with Coop during a long passage in which details of the mechanics of plowing seemed to go on, and on, and on. I started to wonder if maybe this was an implicit metaphor for long days seated on a tractor, the sun beating down, the cruel trick of geometric perspective teasing you that you're almost to the end of the row, almost, you're getting there, almost, any damn minute now you'll be turning the corner...
But such moments, for me, were rare. Especially, to repeat: Coop comes with plenty of laughs.
By the time I finished the book, yes, my predominant mood was regret. But as I look back now at all those dog-eared moments, I remember again how much I'd flat-out enjoyed reading it.
At one point, Perry is recalling the work of a man employed by his father as an artificial inseminator -- "the breeder man" -- who, umm, serviced the cows.
...the inseminator stopped behind the cow, drew on a shoulder-length plastic glove, and stepped across the gutter [in the barn floor]. After patting the cow to calm her, he grabbed her tail, hoisted it, and from then on the whole deal was very personal.Ha! Again, Perry intuits just how to nudge the reader along, without prod or bludgeon, down paths complicated by emotion, biology, and the sheer weight of fact.
I can't say the cows ever appeared overly distressed by what certainly had to be a disruption in their day. They would pause in chewing their cud, kinda freezing in a "hunh?" sorta pose, and their eyes would bulge a tad, about like yours would at the point of realizing your taxes were due yesterday.
I greatly admire this talent, especially in non-fiction writers; it's a gift they don't have to give us, after all. And it's a gift which Michael Perry grants (yes, even in the loooong furrows of the plowing epic) on every page of his marvelous Coop.