Off Main Street

As you may know, IÕve been doing some bedside sitting with my frail and amazing father-in-law. It has been hard, soul-piercing and exhausting. I had imagined myself reading lots in the silence of the hospital room, at least between bathroom visits, beeping from the techno stuff, and doctor calls. Reading? It just wasnÕt meant to be.
By the way, I suppose this hardship is relatively routine for many elderly folks and many friends my age have expressed solidarity in this end of life journey that we face with our parents. For younger others, whose trudge through the institions of health care have been to face the hard and crazy stuff of cancer treatments, nobody I know has written with as much verve and honesty, passion and guts, faith and honest hope as my buddy Dwight Ozard, music critic, writer and social activist. He has chronicled his cancer-fightin’ ups and downs—more downs, I suppose, until lately—at his own website. His journals were blogged over the last year or two and you should check out his very interesting website, and then dip into his gut-wrenching and colorful and compelling reportage. And his reminders to pray for the poor and those who have no support and no hope.
Here, though, I wanted to fulfill my promise of this blog and not wax uneloquent on our personal stuff (although the reality of the hardships of Grandpa G, as he has been affectionately known by my children, is so major it is difficult not to mention.) Rather, I am supposed to note some books.
So, IÕve been trying to dip into short essays and stuff that can be read on the run. IÕve been meaning to read a guy who I had a hunch IÕd like. Been putting it off for a year at least. And now that I’ve started reading him, I cannot believe it. He is so funny, such a good writer, so interesting and odd and good. I refer to emergency CPR guru, Michael Perry. His big breakthrough book, now out in paperback, is called Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (HarperCollins) $13.95. Long before reading him, I was convinced I wanted this slice of heroic Americana for three reasons that converged when I ordered them into the shop a year or so ago: somebody said he did for EMT work what Thomas Lynch did for undertaking. (If you havenÕt read Lynch, at least go to my website review that I wrote of his extra, extra-ordinary, brilliant work, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade and Bodies in Motion and at Rest: Essays on Metaphor and Mortality, here. And then call immediately and order them. They are truly among my most favored books, ever, and everyone we push them comes back for more.) So, I was disposed to think highly of Perry. Secondly, Beth and I were enjoying some small town memoirs and essays about rural life, like the work of wonderful writer, Barbara Holland, whose new memoir I am anxious to take to a local joint and slurp coffee and eat egg salad and devour. And I love to dip into her brief pieces in Wasn’t the Grass Greener or Endangered Pleasures. (Our favorite of hers, though, is sadly out of print, about her move from to very small town life in Virginia.) And, as always, we were reading Wendell Berry, then, I think, Jayber Crowe, perhaps his finest novel and a great way into the themes of his nonfiction essays. So this nearly gonzo-crazy rugged rural collection of articles about redemptive insights gleaned from the siren trade, well, it just seemed weird and quaint and quirky enoughÉand still seemed to be a book that mattered. It has gotten some good reviews, and I was not wrong.
I started with Perry’s more recent one, also now in paperback, Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth’s Gator which is a splendid and rich collection of rural life bits, magazine-type features and fine essays about all sorts of junk. A bit darker and I think funnier than Lake Wobegon, and more white-trash straight than the good Mr. LynchÑwhose deeply moral work about mortality, though rooted in a small town of ordinary and not so ordinary dyings, is still necessarily serious and a bit literary (even if often funny.) Perry writes about fighting fires, passing a kidney stone, hammering down I-80 in an 18-wheeler and meditating on the relationship between cowboys and God. The back cover says Ã’his essays balance earthiness with poetry, kinetics with contemplation, and is regularly salted with his unique brand of humor.Ó I am not sure about that kinetics thing, but I just want to shout, “Yeah, hell, yeah.” The chapter about traveling with a butcher who does his itinerant work from a traveling slaughterhouse in way below freezing temperatures did more than make me cold, it made me gape with my mouth open at the hard work of our northern mid-West farmers. What a chapter!
One of his truly funny pieces was about a group of frat guys who buzz-sawed up a huge plastic BobÕs Big Boy Statue. This gruesome bit of tomfoolery isnÕt glorified, really, but becomes the opportunity for him to go visit the place that makes these kinds of corporate fiberglass items, roadside colossi and other big plastic things. He tells of some of their hugest creationsÑa giant fish which people walk through at the Fishing Hall of Fame, for instance (it’s a Muskie, if you really must know, and people have been married in there) and ponders the significance of these kinds of things. It is, trust me, a great chapter.
* * *
IÕve only dipped in to it a little bit, but weÕve received a new book that I can only say is something like the highly acclaimedÑwe told you about him years ago, but nobody believed me! —Donald Miller. If you liked Blue Like Jazz or Searching for God Knows What may I recommend the brand new flashBANG by Mark Steele*. The cover sports a hip little firecracker (or is it a big stick o dynamite?) and a subtitle which says: How I Got Over Myself. (Relevant) $13.99. The marketing hype isnÕt quite Velvet Elvis proportions [see my earlier blog about this new book by Rob Bell], but I think it walks in similar turf. One can tell from the back cover which asks, boldly, Ã’Why would someone want to read the back cover of a book?Ó and proceeds to answer that with direct prose (dripping in irony, no?) Steel admits that he Ã’feels like the last person chosen in dodgeball. Potential reader,Ó he pleads, Ã’Pick Me.Ó You can pick it, pick it up, but I don’t think you have to work with it, read it straight through. Just mess around, a chapter here and there. I think you’ll be hooked.
I love Charlie PeacockÕs heartfelt endorsement (and Charlie wouldnÕt blurb this thing if he didnÕt mean it, and I know that he is disinterested in the evangelical subcultureÕs Ã’starmaker machineryÓ these days. And he is into the story-telling of memoir, seriously, so I trust this line: Ã’MarkÕs words will set people free, and free people change the world.Ó There you have it. And do click on the hyper-link to Charlie’s site; it is very cool.
*In the preface Steele compliments Patton. Could this be Patton Dodd, of My Faith Thus Far: A Memoir of Conversion and Confusion Jossey-Bass) $21.95. Now there is one great ride of a tale. Couldn’t put it down, even his part about being at Oral Roberts and all. Wow.
* * *
Lastly, if you want a memoiristic devotional, a 30-day experiment, check out Surprise Me by Terry Esau (NavPress) $10.99. He wrote the interesting Blue Collar God/White Collar GodÑthe very best part was the two-sided, upside down covers. Here, the advertising executive shows us his chops, coming up with sheer cleverness that is not just a jingle, but communicates. And he is communicating about life, about the journey, about experimenting in finding God, seeking the surprises of the Kingdom, hoping against hope. As the omnipresent Brian McLaren puts it, ÒSurprise Me (gives us) a way to take some steps forward in our spiritual life, wherever weÕre staring from, without guilt and without pressure but instead with joy, adventure, fun and serendipity.Ó I think it itÕs going to be nice.
* * *
PS: Since I am writing about short stuff, does anybody out there read short story collections? You know how I raved and raved about the funniest and most interesting book of last year, Candy Freak by Steve Almond. (The subtitle is sweet: A Journey Through the Chocholate Underbelly of America.) I finished his short story collection not long ago and it was brilliant. Vulgar, nearly pornographic at times (how does a guy learn to write about sex like that and isnÕt he worried that his mother will see?) But through that all, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories (Alconquian of Chapel Hill Press; $22.95) was a collection I could not put down. His previous short story anthology was so sexual and vulgar that I could hardly take it, like searching for gold among the garbage. But The Evil B.B. really shows that Almond is an amazingly imaginative thinker, a hip and witty writer, and a very talented guy. I canÕt wait for him to write more, and hope he continues to seriously plumb the human quandary, sugar, sex, and all. May God bless him. (Please be warned. I was not kidding about the graphic nature of some of his writing and the subject matter of some of his stories. Email me if even me citing this worries you, as we would be happy to talk furtherÉ) His website gives you a taste of his stuff–check it out. You can read excerpts and reviews. And e-mail him your “candy testimonals” too. Fun.