I have lately become a fan of memoirs – recently popularized by writers such as Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a kind of garden memoir in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I loved, and Rebecca Walker wrote a powerful childhood memoir titled Black White Jewish. So I have been paying more attention to this kind of book, and when I heard about Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, I put in on hold at the library. (I try not to buy every book that looks half-way interesting, keeps me from running out of gas money every week). I have know a few people who are volunteer fire and rescue folk – and most of them live in small towns – so I thought a writer’s view of the experience might be interesting. And since the blurb says he had recently moved back to his hometown before joining its volunteer crew, there seemed to be all kinds of potential for great story-telling. And this book did indeed deliver.
Being a person prone to introspection, the memoir genre allows me to watch others ruminate about their own thoughts and reactions to the events in their lives. Not all memoirs are created equal, of course, and different lives result in very different books. Population: 485 is less navel-gazing that the average memoir, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Michael Perry is from Wisconsin and spent some time ‘cowboying’ in Wyoming (says the blurb on the book), so this is not the story of an urban man and his neuroses, but a small-town boy returning to that small town after seeing the world – and happy to be doing so.
Perry does a great job of connecting himself and the folks around him to the landscape – in a way that resonates on a very basic level – and reminds me of my own trips back to the small town I grew up in. When he goes running, he relives the myriad events of his childhood that occurred on each particular street and corner, overlaid by the fire and rescue calls of adulthood. So one street may be where he received a scar as a young, rough-playing boy, the next a house where he wasn’t able to save an elderly man after a heart attack. Each is treated with vivid detail and adept delicacy. These are not the essays of a hero in his own mind, but a man humbled by the trust placed in him by his community. And someone who knows that laughing at your own screw-ups is the only way to keep your sanity when life throws you a curve.
As I hurry to finish this book before I need to return it to the library (thinking phrases like ‘the writing isn’t great but is good, author really gives you a sense of what the experience of fire and rescue is like for him’), I had almost decide that it was a decent book but nothing outstanding. But that was before it made me cry, and then made me bawl like a baby. I’m sure it won’t have that effect on everyone. But Perry clearly understand grief and has the chops to make you feel it if you have any inclination towards visceral empathy.
When he describes the quiet grief of a man – a stranger to him – who has lost a child, I teared up. I have a child, and Perry’s gentle descriptions were heartbreaking without a hint of being over-wrought. But it was the passages regarding the loss of his young sister-in-law that make it impossible for me to see the words on the page (both his as I read and these as I attempt to write them).
My sister lost her husband to a drunk-driving accident 3 and ½ years ago, and the picture this man paints – of a husband who responds to an accident scene where his new wife has been hit, how his mother is there performing CPR as his brother blows air into his own wife’s injured lungs, how they are surrounded by the friends and family who make up the volunteer crew, and later the professionals arrive and pronounce her dead there on the soil they both spent their lives on – these are some of the most heart-breaking and emotionally charged sentences I’ve ever read. I admit, my situation makes them more personal to me, but this is a book that brings life – and death – remarkably up close and personal.
I would not characterize this book as a tear-jerker (though it made me cry) or a comic story (though it made me laugh). This book does what the best stories – whether so-called non-fiction or the truly fictitious – do so well, put all the experiences of one life into words that allow us to recognize our own. I wouldn’t call him a favorite author after only one book, but I will certainly be checking out his other books to see if they measure up to this one.