Man At Work: A Look at Michael Perry's Latest

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger
Michael Perry’s "Danger, Man Working: Writing from the Heart, the Gut, and the Poison Ivy Patch" is available now.

John Steinbeck said he wanted to write about people “who merge successfully with their habitat.” “In men, we call this philosophy, and it is a fine thing,” he added. He wished to tell the tales of “good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness.”

That was in 1937. Now it’s late 2017, and the ghost of John Steinbeck is no doubt thrilled to have someone like Michael Perry carrying on his work down here on Earth. Perry’s new book, Danger, Man Working: Writing from the Heart, the Gut, and the Poison Ivy Patch, won’t surprise anyone in scope or style. It’s simply a collection of stories spanning 15 years. Perry writes about dog sledding, existential philosophy, vomit, guns, and the complexities of modern parenting.

You don’t have to be clever or enlightened to enjoy Perry’s writing. But he is clever, and you will always leave a bit more enlightened after visiting with him. He’s kind of a gonzo journalist embedded deeply in rural America.

Part of what makes books like “Danger” so remarkable is the fact that Perry, who writes like David Sedaris in manure-caked boots, makes it seem so easy. There is flow to his prose, and his characters are always alive and complex, never quaint or flat.

There are practical, real life lessons here too. Don’t use poison ivy leaves as toilet paper, for instance. Don’t drink too much (or too little) alcohol.

The author admits that any overarching narrative in the new book is purely superficial. These are stories and essays that appeared in places including Men’s Health, No Depression, and Wisconsin Trails magazines. (The final story is actually a ghostly little riff that first appeared in the liner notes to a gospel album.)

Perry is increasingly a contender for the “Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness” title, between his eclectic writing, his music, and even the play based on one of his books. He’s married to the idea of writing as a blue collar profession, and in the book’s introduction he lovingly compares it to shoveling manure: “just keep shoveling until you’ve got a pile so big, someone has to notice.” You could draw a direct line from “Danger” to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging,” in which he described his ancestors cutting peat and digging potatoes, and the poet pledged to also dig, but to do it with the pen in his hand “snug as a gun.”

Perry’s book shows an insightful guy with a blue-collar work ethic, as he labors at his keyboard and hopes to accumulate a big pile of stories. He says it’s not always “pure art” - after all, many of the stories were assigned - but he tries to sneak in “a wink, a grin, a moment of compassion” wherever the narrative will allow.

My only quibble with his new book is, admittedly, a small one. Perry wants to be an artist and a poet. Perhaps in an unneeded attempt at humility (if you read his work, you already know how self-deprecating he is), he suggests that his favorite stories in this collection are those in which he turns his lens outward. He says it’s a privilege to tell the stories of others. It is a privilege, but Perry’s prose, which always glimmers, quickly becomes art when he looks inward. It’s in his frank dispatches about teaching his daughter (sort of - it’s complicated) to ride a bike, or his brief but poignant forays into theology, that his stories transform into art. To read him is to know him, and that shouldn’t be downplayed.

It’s all funny. It’s all well written. But these personal moments are the ones that stick with you when you finish the book. They even beckon you back. An image of a tree skirted in mysterious whiteness. The memory of two men on the phone late at night, trying to figure out an enigmatic bladder infection in the little kid for whom they both care.

My favorite passage is this, which comes from a story about a Christian whitewater rafting trip. The essay brims with compassion and openness, but also a touch of what Perry calls “crankiness”: “The What Would Jesus Do? thing sets my teeth on edge as a peppy pop-culture gloss on the sweaty spiritual wrassling that troubled souls endure.”

Sure, Perry compares puking to orgasm (both completely overtake the body and mind), and he gets a little teary eyed when he talks about shooting fish with a bow and arrow alongside a camo-clad friend with fake hillbilly teeth in his mouth. But the guy doing it is clearly “wrassling” with big things, like existence and empathy.  “Danger” is about an author trying his damndest to merge successfully with his habitat. It’s a kind of philosophy, and it is a fine thing.

Read the book and you’ll get to know a good, working man of laughter and kindness, full of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness.

Editor's note: This review also appears in the Midwest Book Review.

Title: Danger, Man Working: Writing from the Heart, the Gut, and the Poison Ivy Patch

Author: Michael Perry

Publisher: Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Publisher Address: Madison, WI

Publisher Website:  wisconsinhistory.org

ISBN: 987-0-87020-840-9

Price: $25.95 (US)

Page Count: 288

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