Under a farmer's flannel shirt lies the soul of a poet

Review Rural life

November 12, 2006|By Erika Schickel | Erika Schickel,Chicago Tribune

Truck: A Love Story

Michael Perry

HarperCollins / 281 pages / $24.95

Author Michael Perry had but two simple goals in winter 2003: "Grow a garden and recapture my youth. That, and get my decrepit 1951 L-120 International pickup truck running in time for deer hunting season in November."

The premise of Truck: A Love Story is deceptively simple: the recounting of one year in the middle of one man's life. Perry, confirmed bachelor and author of the best-selling memoir Population: 485, uses the truck and his garden as a springboard for his further musings on small-town life in northern Wisconsin.

As in his previous book, Perry animates his friends and neighbors on the page, bringing them to us with keen wit and respect, often trying to mimic their ways, as when his brother-in-law, Mark, who is helping him fix his truck, looks at its fender and says, "We're gonna hafta puller."

"Gonna hafta puller," Perry writes, "is one of my favorite shop phrases. It applies in any circumstance where any mechanical object - the fuel pump, a bad spark plug, or the entire dang engine - requires removal. You say it with a tone of can-do resignation, and it helps if you take a big breath first and then speak like you're hiking your pants or lifting something heavy. I'm telling you, it really puts hair on your chest. I'll stand there sometimes with the hood up, looking into the bowels of the machine, and I'll just suck it up and say, `Yee-up, looks like I'm gonna hafta puller.' And then I'll reach in and draw that empty inkjet cartridge right on outta there."

As comfortable at a NASCAR race as he is at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, Perry blends macho yin with sensual yang. Salon.com has said he is "like a sensitive, New Age Hemingway," but he would probably appreciate more a comparison to his idol, author Jim Harrison, whose food writing he describes as "gusto meets reverence."

Indeed, he possesses many of Harrison's manly sensibilities without mimicking them, from his taste for game to his reverent eye toward his rural homestead. His masculine prose style protects a soft center that he offers freely, as in this musing on a seed catalog: "My winterbound spirit thaws, releasing sense memories - the shink, shink sound of a hoe cleaving sandy soil, the press of a hard seed between the pad of thumb and forefinger, the scratchy hiss of squash leaves moving in a warm breeze. I am this close to writing a poem. Seed catalogs are responsible for more unfulfilled fantasies than Enron and Playboy combined."

Beneath the flannel surface of this deer-hunting, truck-loving Badger is the soul of a poet and a man at work balancing his masculinity against his softer urges toward food, sentimentality and literature. It is this tension, this misfitting of parts, that creates a delicious tautness in his potent memoir.

Perry opens his book in a state of isolation and longing, fetishizing objects that connect him to himself: his truck, a recipe booklet, a mound of sheep manure. Paramount in his fantasy life is the figure of Irma Harding, erstwhile spokes-character for International Harvester Co. whose portrait gazes up from a vintage edition of the promotional recipe booklet Freezer Fancies: "I have the hots for Irma Harding. I wish I might couch my desire in more decorous terms, but when our gazes lock, the tickles in my tummy are frankly hormonal. ... Irma Harding radiates brightness and strength. She furthermore appears to have good posture. As a younger man, I would not have looked twice at Irma Harding.

"As a younger man, I was a fool."

Trapped as Perry is by the isolation of winter, bachelorhood and the writer's life, his memoir perches on the brink of navel-gazing in its opening chapters. A cynical reader has several opportunities to worry that the book is going nowhere fast. And indeed, like Population: 485, this book has little in the way of plot or conflict.

But if you just settle down and keep reading, you are drawn inextricably into Perry's world. He finds fodder in just about every topic within his reach. The garden and the truck, in the end, are the vehicles that take us through not just the year and the book but through Perry's conscience as he negotiates the deeply rutted road of waning youth, romantic fancy and the many vistas of a life lived deeply and consciously.

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