The Scavengers by Michael Perry


 

Scavengers cover 2

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.” –  Kurt Vonnegut, advice to writers

I’ve been a fan of Michael Perry’s writing for a few years now.  In books like Population 485 and Visiting Tom, he established himself as a master of the narrative personal memoir, chronicling life in the rural Midwest, telling personal stories of a vanishing people and the countryside they inhabit. His non-fiction works so well because he writes from the inside out; as a long time resident of the isolated small towns and farms that is his setting, he puts himself in the center of the narrative, and we see the world through his eyes. His books are a slow cooked stew of humor, nostalgia, tragedy and triumph all blended together and seasoned with his love of the northwestern Wisconsin landscape and his eccentric but decent neighbors, and served with prose that balances the humor and longing with the cadence and imagery of poetry.

When I first heard that Perry was dabbling in fiction, I was intrigued. The stories he tells in his memoirs may be non-fiction, but they are stories none the less.  Population 485 and Visiting Tom work so well because Perry has such a gift for keeping the narrative moving and breathing life into the characters, two elements crucial to writing good fiction.  Fact or fiction, stories are stories, and story tellers are story tellers.

For me, writing fiction has always felt like a more personal endeavor than memoirs.  In memoir, one is always constrained by facts, by things that actually happened.  In fiction, the only constraints are the limitations of your own imagination. By writing fiction, the writer creates new worlds, worlds that have to come from somewhere inside. It takes nerve to write a novel, to assume that you’re able to imagine and describe a setting and characters and a narrative that will justify the reader’s investment of the time it takes to read it.

When I heard that Perry’s new book was not only fiction but a dystopian mid grade adventure, I thought, what could be further from the grounded reality and the reverence for the past that is Perry’s usual work? It’s as if he wanted to stretch beyond his comfort zone, to challenge himself, and he’s swinging for the fences on the first pitch.

The Scavengers contains such highly imaginative elements as solar bears, “grey devils”, bubble cities, “scary pruners,” and huge crops of genetically modified corn.  It describes a population divided by the dwellers of cities encased in giant bubbles and those who choose to live by their wits in the lawless wilderness outside the bubbles. These things aside, you don’t have to dig too deep to be reminded that this is still a Michael Perry book.

First of all, the landscape, despite being charred and modified by climate change, remains unmistakably northwestern Wisconsin.  Readers of Population 485 will recognize the town of  Nobbern  as the real life town of New Auburn. Setting is always vitally important to Perry.  The Scavengers is set in the same latitude and longitude as Perry’s non-fiction, and while climate change has introduced new plants and animals and set the weather out of whack, Perry’s descriptive passages reveal the same love of nature.  You can feel the night breeze, you can see and smell the green rolling hills, and you can understand and appreciate why the narrator, Maggie, a.k.a. “Ford Falcon,” loves living out bubble so much.

The Scavengers may be set in the future, but that doesn’t prevent Perry from further exploration of one of the primary on-going themes of his non-fiction work:  the relationship of the past to the present.  The people who have chosen to live outside of the bubble are quite literally off the grid, and they have to rely upon their own creativity and what they can learn from whatever’s available, including an ancient and sexist but none the less helpful boy scouting manual written in 1880.  Cell phones and computers and Face Book are nowhere to be found out bubble. Instead, Maggie learns to communicate with her neighbor Toad via semaphore lamps and other coded methods. Maggie and Toad make their living by scavenging junk yards for abandoned relics and trading them for food and clothing. They are quite literally living off of the past.

Maggie, the twelve year old narrator and protagonist, is a remarkable and memorable creation. Strong, smart, independent, resourceful, and passionate, she is exceptional and unique, a true heroine.  The story is told from her point of view, and we follow her, she is “on screen,” for every moment of the book.  We learn about her relationships with her parents – her mother, who Maggie loves more than anything, as they bond via the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Earl Grey tea, and her father, who her feelings for are  a bit more complex and ambiguous.  He’s emotional, sentimental even, but is also strangely aloof and distant, easily driven to distraction. We eventually learn that he has a secret that Maggie has to draw out of him in a most unexpected way. Without revealing too much, it turns out that he played a key role in the events that led up to the creation of the in bubbles and out bubbles, and he’s a wanted man by government officials  who are secretly combing the countryside for him.

Maggie also has a little brother, Dookie, who appears to be developmentally disabled in some unidentified manner.  Dookie represents one of the few missed opportunities in the book, as I never felt he was adequately explained or played an important enough role in the story (perhaps in the sequel Perry says is coming in 2015 he’ll play a larger part).

A Michael Perry book wouldn’t be a Michael Perry book without humor, and there’s plenty here.  There’s a psychotic rooster named Hatchet who is the bane of Maggie’s existence, attacking her at the most unexpected and inopportune times.  There’s the character of the blacksmith in the town of Nobbern who loves to talk but hates to work; his long suffering wife does the work for the two of them and more but has nearly given up on getting a spoken word in.

As in Perry’s memoir writing, The Scavengers celebrates the importance of neighbors. Maggie’s closest friends are an elderly couple who live a hill away, Toad and Arlinda Hooper, who at least slightly resemble Tom and Arlene, the elderly neighbors Perry wrote about in Visiting Tom.  In one of the book’s constant ongoing sources of amusement, Toad loves wordplay and communicates almost exclusively in pig Latin and spoonerisms (like the wagon they travel to Nobbern to trade goods and battle “Grey devils” from is called the “Scary Pruner“, based upon the Prairie Schooners of the frontier days).

Perry’s love of language is another thing to like about the book – the vocabulary and the refusal to dumb down the story to a younger audience. Perry has never shied away from the big words in his memoirs, and while the language in The Scavengers is less sophisticated, it’s only slightly so.  I found myself having fun deciphering Toad’s coded messages, and I’m sure that bright children will get the same pleasure. I suspect that the book may even ignite a love of language in some of the readers.

I haven’t read much mid grade fiction, so I assume that some of the things that seemed a bit off kilter to me are because of the intended audience. For example, at the start of the book, I had trouble understanding why such a close and loving family would let the children run free so much of the time.  It’s one thing to let the kids run and play in the fields and woods during the day, but at night, Maggie sleeps in an old abandoned Ford Falcon at the bottom of the hill, separated from the rest of the family, in a landscape populated by carnivorous solar bears and the zombie-meth head–like creatures known as grey devils.  Mom and Dad also sit at home while Maggie/Ford Falcon goes with Toad via the Scary Pruner on dangerous trading runs to Nobbern, where they have to fight off hordes of grey devils. Of course, Maggie is an exceptionally capable and tough little girl who knows how to take care of herself, and while I may take issue with some of her folks’ parenting decisions, I’m sure that the ten to twelve year old kids who read the book won’t think twice about it.

The Scavengers should appeal to readers of all ages.  Parents of middle grade age children can take comfort in that there are no swear words or profanity in the book.  There are some suspenseful fights with the grey devils, but they are all pretty benign, with no gratuitous or graphic violence. There is plenty of adventure and action to keep kids engaged, and at the same time, the book is written at a level that will challenge them to think about things they maybe haven’t thought about before, like how they relate to their neighbors, to the environment, to nature, to their families.

The Scavengers may have been written for children, but not at children. Perry treats his younger audience with the same respect he shows for the readers of his memoirs.

John Updike once said, “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”   With The Scavengers, Perry has written a book that will speak to boys and girls of all ages for generations.

“The Scavengers” is scheduled to be released on September 2nd by Harper Collins.  Hard cover copies are available for pre-orders on the product page for “The Scavengers” on Mr. Perry’s website:  http://sneezingcow.com/product/scavengers/ 

More about Michael Perry:

Mike is scheduled to be our guest on the September episode of the Kenosha Writers Guild radio show, “Speaking of Our Words” – look for us on FaceBook or YouTube

Mike’s website:  

http://sneezingcow.com/

I had the opportunity to interview Mike in 20013  for the web page 2nd First Look: http://www.2ndfirstlook.com/2013/05/michael-perry.html

 

*Copy reviewed provided by publisher. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any way.

Thirty Three



Last Friday, my wife and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary.  I’m posting this video because, as usual, Leonard Cohen says it all more eloquently than I could.

Happy anniversary, Deb – thirty three years and our hearts still beat in rhythm, even though mine still skips a beat every day when you walk through the door.

 

 

Gerald


(another excerpt from what will be my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why”)

I found him tucked away on the top shelf of my Mom and Dad’s closet, in an old shoebox, with, among other things, a tiny pair of socks and a little pair of one-piece pajamas, a rattle, and a yellowed newspaper clipping affixed to a fading sheet of green construction paper.  It was from the Racine Journal Times.  The date was April 17th, 1954.

“Gerald Anderson” was the simple headline. It was an obituary.  I instantly recognized the name of my paternal grandfather, but then I remembered, he died in 1966, when I was seven years old.  This was twelve years earlier, four years before I was born.

The text beneath the headline began with “Gerald Thomas Anderson was born sleeping on April 14th.  He will be forever loved by his parents, William Anderson and Laura Jordan Anderson, of Orchard Depot.”  Then there was a quote from something:  “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?  And what is to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”*

At that precise moment I heard car doors slam in the driveway, and I knew mom and dad were home.  I quickly put the shoebox back where I found it, and made it to the hallway just as I heard the front door opening.  Dad’s arms were full of brown paper bags filled with groceries. I met him in the living room and took them from him, placing them on the counter in the kitchen.  Mom trailed behind with a single bag in her arms.

“What I could never figure out,” dad started, “is why the hell do they have eggnog only at Christmas time?”

“You bought eggnog?” I asked.  My dad and I both loved eggnog.

“Yeah, but why only at Christmas time?   What if I had a hankering for eggnog in July?”

“And who could blame you?” I added.  “It’d be refreshing any time of year.”

“That’s right,” he responded.  “It’s so damn refreshing.”

“You guys with your eggnog,” mom chimed in as she started unpacking the bags.  “Every year I have to listen to this.”

“I’ll tell you who’s behind it,” dad added.  “It’s that god damned pope.  It’s all part of this whole Christmas racket he’s got going.  And believe me, he’s making millions off of it.

Dad didn’t affiliate himself with any religion, he just hated the pope.  While his conspiracy theory about the pope controlling and manipulating global eggnog supplies may have been distracting, my mind was still trying to process what I’d just stumbled upon in their closet while looking for wrapping paper to wrap the University of Wisconsin Whitewater sweatshirts and coffee mugs I’d bought home the day before in my duffle bag.

I’d never been told about Gerald, never been told that I was supposed to have an older brother.  “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”  For some reason, these words from the obituary stuck with me, I couldn’t get them out of my head, even as a thousand questions entered my mind.  Did they bury Gerald somewhere?  Why and how did he die?  Why didn’t they ever tell me about him?  Why did he die, and I lived?   So many questions that I’d decided I wouldn’t ask.  There had to be a reason they hadn’t told me.

“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”

I tried to imagine, tried to conceive the pain and anguish my mom and dad must have felt.  They both seemed inadequate for such a tumultuous event.

And then I came along.  Was I strictly a replacement for my older brother?  Was his death the only reason I was conceived?

I’d been an only child my entire life, and all the time it was just me and my mom and dad.  But now there was another, and, as we sat that night and ate dinner, Gerald was there, in the empty chair next to me, and I wondered if mom and dad could see him.  Of course they could, they’d been seeing him for the past 24 years.  The question was what else had been unseen?

I thought stupid, trivial things.  Things like, would we call him Gerald or Jerry, and if Jerry, should it be Gerry, with a G, because that’s how they spelled Gerald.  I thought about what it’d be like to have a big brother, and it occurred to me he’d be twenty four years old by now.  He’d probably be finished with college and married to a beautiful young wife.  In all my visions he was movie star handsome and endlessly successful.  In short, he was everything I wasn’t, but that didn’t bother him, because he looked out for me.

I was home, even if it was just for Christmas break, in the house I grew up in, in my room, laying in its familiar darkness, sleeping in my bed again.  But I wasn’t alone.  Gerald shared my room with me (it was actually our room now), and as I laid awake in the darkness, my eyes could trace the shape of Gerald’s bed, across the room from me, and I could make out the shape of Gerald under his covers.  One night, I said softly, just above a whisper, “Good night, Gerald.”

“Good night, Jack,” he replied.  “See you in the morning.”

Soon I began thinking about the dead boy in the woods in the cornfield again.  He was the first dead boy I’d found.  Gerald was the second.  I’d learned my lesson from the first boy, to keep my mouth shut and not tell anybody about it.  The thought of asking my parents about Gerald never crossed my mind.

It didn’t take long for Gerald to become real to me. I felt his presence, just like I still felt the presence of the kid with no eyes and the hole in his chest I saw that afternoon eight years earlier.  Soon I couldn’t think of one without being reminded of the other.   The dead guy in the corn became Gerald, and Gerald’s obituary became the dead guy in the corn’s obituary.

In the day, when I was alone, the house would press in on me, just like it had before I started college, when I was still in high school.  I felt the same claustrophobia that I’d felt before.  I was alone, and in the day, with Mom and Dad away at work, it became suffocating.  Every day I’d get bored and I’d go into Mom and Dad’s room and pull the shoe box down, examining each item.  One day I walked to the library and looked up “stillborn babies” in the World Book encyclopedia.

I didn’t know where Gerald was during the day, he was off doing whatever he did, but at night, before falling asleep, he’d be there, in his bed in our room, and we’d talk, whispering.  We talked about everything a big and little brother would talk about.

One night we were talking about Julie McMillan’s breasts, when Gerald said something about them being “breakfast, lunch and dinner” and I started laughing, under my sheets, when I heard a knock on my door.

“Jack?”  It was my mom. I pretended I was asleep.   She knocked some more.  “Jack?”

When I still didn’t answer, she slowly opened the door, flooding my room with light from the hall.  She stood in the doorway, wrapped in her bathrobe, and she seemed a little apprehensive, like she was afraid to get too close to me.  “Jack?”

I rolled over and pretended I was just waking up.  “Yeah, Mom?”

“Who were you talking to?”  She was wearing her yellow bathrobe, and her hair was up in curlers. She had that concerned look on her face, a half frown that wrinkled her face into a road map of lines that all ended at the pensive ocean of her deep blue eyes

“Talking to?”  I looked over at Gerald; he was quiet and motionless under his covers.

“I heard your voice.  You were talking to someone.”

“I was?”

“Yes, you were.”

“I must have been talking in my sleep.  I’ve been having some weird dreams lately.  Oh, well.”  I rolled over and pretended to go back to sleep, but she didn’t leave.  I could feel her sit at the end of my bed, by my feet.

“Jack”, she said.  “Who is Gerald?”  There was soft fear in her voice.

“Who is who?”

“Gerald.”  There was a heavy pause.  “You were talking to someone named Gerald.”

“I was?  But I don’t know anyone named Gerald.”

‘”Are you sure?”  Her voice was trembling.  “Are you sure you don’t know a Gerald?”

“No.  Wait, I’ll bet I was saying ‘Harold.’  There’s a guy in my dorm named Harold.  Real piece of work.  I must have been dreaming about Harold.”

“Okay,” she said, and she got up, but it wasn’t clear whether she was buying it or not.  As she got to the door, before she shut it, she said, “Jack, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“I worry about you, Jack.  Promise me you’ll tell me if anything is wrong.”

“I’m fine, mom.  Don’t worry about me.   And I’d tell you.  Honest, I would.”

“Okay, good night, Jack.”

“Night, mom.”  She shut the door and it was dark again.  Gerald and I lay still for the longest time and didn’t say anything, as we both knew how mom was, and that she’d be up all night worrying about us, waiting for the slightest sound to come from our room.  Neither one of us wanted to disturb her.

I laid there in the dark, on my back, staring at the darkness that filled the space between my bed and the ceiling, my dead big brother in the bed across from me, and the words came back to me, and I repeated them, softly, lower than a whisper, to myself, over and over again:

“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”

 

* – taken from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

The Latest News From Science and Nature


This is the premiere of a new feature, “Science and Nature Headlines,” where I read actual recent articles on the internet and summarize them, to save you more of your valuable time.  The posts to the real links are included:

“Asian Unicorn” Seen in Vietnam for the First Time in 15 Years:  When asked where he’d been, the antelope replied:  “So we were going to lunch when I said, what, Mexican again?  If I eat one more chimichanga, I swear I’ll puke.  I’m a fucking asian unicorn‘Asian’ Unicorn, not a Latino unicorn.  So I said screw those guys, and left by myself for Mr. Wonton’s – they have the best egg rolls – and this fucking nun in  a station wagon ahead of me, she brakes for a bunch of baby ducks crossing the street – so I slam on my brakes, air bag deploys but I’m a fucking unicorn, you know, my horn pops that fucker, and I hit my head on the steering wheel – next thing I know, I’m wandering around a jungle in Vietnam, and they tell me it’s 2014 – say, is ‘Saved by the Bell’ still on?  That Screetch, he cracks me up!”

http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/%E2%80%98asian-unicorn%E2%80%99-seen-vietnam-first-time-fifteen-years

Scientists Create Transparent Mice:  Scientist Will Smith:  “I was, in my lab, able to create a new breed of mice so transparent that one of them actually said, to a female mouse, ‘I have a copy of The Notebook that was signed by Nicholas Sparks.  If you want to come by my labyrinth tonight, I’d be happy to show you.’”      http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/transparent-mice-allow-incredible-anatomical-views

What’s the most dangerous place on earth? Turns out it’s seated between two life insurance salesmen on a cross country flight to Eugene, Oregon       http://www.iflscience.com/environment/whats-most-dangerous-place-earth

 

giraffe Why is this giraffe gnawing on an impala skull?  When asked , the giraffe replied:   “Because I much prefer the taste of the Impala skull, especially the late sixties to early seventies sedan models, to the Camaros and Chevelles.  I once tried the skull of a Buick LeSabre, and let me tell ‘ya,  I was in the bathroom for a week.”

http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/why-giraffe-gnawing-impala-skull

Strangest genitals on earth:  Whew!  I didn’t make the list! That’s a relief!

http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/strangest-genitals-animal-kingdom

 

 

The Forecast is …


Bleakness…  desolation …  plastic forks”

                                             –   Zippy  the Pinhead

Albert Einstein, considered by many to be the most intelligent man to ever live, once said this:  “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

Some genius.  Einstein figured out how to split the atom, then seemed surprised when that knowledge was used to create nuclear weapons. Even a moron should know that the “heart of mankind” is inherently evil and corrupt.

We’ve been the dominant species on the planet for what seems like a long time, but compared to the reign of the dinosaurs, it’s only been the blink of an eye.  Unlike the dinosaurs, we seem hell bent on destroying life, or at least wiping out our own species, as quickly as possible.  If it it’s not war or famine or pestilence, it’ll be nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe.

The big “intellectual” split these days is between science and religion, the two things that supposedly make us superior to the other species on the planet.  In truth, they are in fact the very things most likely to destroy us.  Science is killing us because technology advances so much more rapidly than our ability to manage it. Our capacity for grasping the mechanics of how the universe operates is exceeded only by our capacity for greed and our acceptance of corruption.

And don’t get me started on religion.  God was created by man, not the other way around, as a way for us to justify our destruction of the world and rationalize our complete incompetence in, as the dominant species, managing and maintaining some semblance of balance.  It is such a backward notion that it’s hard to believe that here, well into the 21st century, people still run around believing that some bearded guy sitting on a cloud determines their fate.  The oxymoron implicit in this backward and primitive institution is that religion, or religious differences, is the most likely reason that science, in the form of nuclear weaponry, will eventually be unleashed to annihilate us all.

“But we’re the only species that’s aware of our own mortality,” scientists and priests are both quick to argue.  Nonsense.  Every animal is born with a survival instinct – what is that instinct if not the knowledge that there are things that can kill you?   Animals see death every day, and I’d argue they understand it better than humans do.  They understand the role it plays in sustaining life and maintaining balance, and they do this without the help of Gods or holy books.  More importantly, they understand this with no need or grasp of economics or greed – they take what they need and move on.

I pity the human race.  We’re far too stupid to be shouldered with the responsibility we’ve been given.  The best thing for all parties would be for us to hurry up and get it over with, exterminate our sorry asses and let the rest of the planet get on without us.

It’s been said that after us cockroaches may take over – if so, then bring on the bugs.  Heaven knows they can’t do any worse than we did.