Saturday, June 20, 2009

Michael Perry/COOP

Book cover: Coop, by Michael PerryIt didn't just stumble into the bookstore yesterday, this time-honored (if not quite hoary) premise: the self-deprecating, fish-out-of-water tale of the sophisticated writer who moves to the farm and reports back to ignorant us about the adventures of a rustic life.

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.
Along the way, you get many of those expected smiles and outright laughs and clutches at the throat. You encounter tragedy, both remembered and present-day varieties.

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.

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.

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.
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 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.


freddie said...

I fantasize about living in the country. I shall pick this one up.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Sounds good. And can we have a new category called Dark-Red, Rubrous, Smoky-Maroon Prose?

Chris Eldin said...

What struck me most about your review (which is terrific, btw) is the bit about purple prose (bust vs. burst). From that short discussion, I came away with a pretty good feeling about what this book was about, and how the story was told.

I think I'd enjoy a book like this much better as an audio book than one I'd have to sit down and read. My days are so often interrupted with children, etc., I barely get snatches of 20 minutes here and there to read. An audio in the car, however, would be perfect for this type of story. For me.

Thanks for the detailed review, and the examples you pulled out!

LOL @ Freddie---we live in the country. All I can say is....Those damn chickens. Our neighbors chickens have adopted us.

JES said...

freddie: As Chris says, as long as you temper the fantasy with a little reality you should be just fine. :)

Jules: How cool a category would that be?

Chris: If you visit Michael Perry's Web site, you will find podcasts and such of his readings (and such), which may give you an idea of how an audiobook version of COOP would come across (at least, if he read it himself). The only other edition currently showing at Amazon is the Kindle one.

(There's also a PDF there of the book's prologue.)

Thanks so much for your comments!

moonrat said...

yeah, awesome review. i would NEVER have picked this book up based on assumptions i would have made about the cover... but you kinda sold it here!

man, the inseminator... eek, poor cows!!

JES said...

Moonie: There's no little notation on a corner of the cover anywhere regarding what genre, exactly, the book is. (E.g., it doesn't say "non-fiction" and it doesn't say "memoir.")

So I looked on the copyright page to see how the Library of Congress said it should be classified. The word "memoir" was there, all right, but pretty much all the other categories it was assigned contain the word "Wisconsin." I don't think the LoC did the book justice. (Not that that's their job; I guess they just go with whatever the publisher gives them?) This is one of those books which I think can be read on multiple levels, and is ultimately about farming or Wisconsin only in the sense that (say) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about Zen Buddhism, motorcycles, or Robert Pirsig's past.

(What's interesting is: I am not even sure Michael Perry set out to write a book like he's done. He's very unassuming, at least in print, and maybe in his eyes this is a book about no more nor less than its ostensible subjects.)

Thanks for the comment!