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.

Spring Thaw


This weekend, I attended the 25th annual Writer’s Institute conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was my second time, and the first since self publishing my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  It also felt like the beginning of spring after what was a long and brutal winter, in more ways than one.

In the prior months, as the winter progressed, I could feel my Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsening.   There were balance problems, including a couple of falls (nothing serious, fortunately), increased issues with my speech, and an overall decrease in stamina.  The combination of these symptoms and the solitude of being locked up in my house while outside the snow was deep and the air was frigid lead to feelings of isolation and depression.  The result was, even though I had lots of time to do nothing else, I got very little writing done, particularly on my second novel. Bottom line, I was in a rut.

In addition, after self publishing Ojibway Valley in January and seeing some early modest sales, by the time March arrived, sales had completely dried up.  I knew I wasn’t marketing very aggressively, and I knew I was in this thing for the long haul, and that huge numbers of sales were never important to me, but it was still disappointing. I had registered to be a part of a book sales / book signing event at the conference, but given the funk I was in, and per my general neurotic nature, I expected depressing results, having visions of sitting alone at a table with copies of my book, being ignored and humiliated.

So as I drove to Madison on Thursday night, my expectations and enthusiasm for the conference were low.  I got there late, checked in to the Madison Concourse hotel, where the conference was held, and tried to start writing a short story I had an idea for, but after a clumsy hour of trying to plow through the disjointed words and phrases that passed through my constipated brain, I gave up and went to bed.

I woke up Friday morning, took my meds and a shower, and made my way downstairs to the conference.  I looked for an acquaintance, Thomas Cannon, a fellow writer from Oshkosh, who had also just self published his first novel, The Tao of Apathy. He wasn’t hard to find, as he must be about 6’8”, and towered above everyone else.  We talked in the hallway between sessions, and met up and ate lunch together in the hotel restaurant.

Friday morning, I attended an excellent session about independent publishing hosted by the independent author Kimberli Bindschatel, who’s first novel, A Path to the Sun was a quarterfinalist in Amazon’s breakthrough novel award. Her presentation was great, and gave me some much needed confirmation that I’d taken the correct path in self publishing Ojibway Valley.

The topic of the next session was writing about home and included a writing exercise.  I was able to put aside the self consciousness I felt about my voice to step up to the microphone and read a passage of my writing, feeling completely at ease and comfortable.  This was a big moment for me, as I’ve always had a morbid fear of speaking in public, heightened by the speech impediments Parkinson’s has imposed on me.

By the time Thomas and I met for lunch, I became aware that I was feeling good.  Really good. I was enjoying the conference more than I expected to, and I felt the dark cloud of the funk I’d been in being lifted.  It occurred to me that I was in my element, surrounded by people with the same passions.

Saturday morning kicked off with a panel discussion in the grand ballroom with local booksellers, including Joanne Berg, owner of the Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison and John Christensen, manager of Arcadia Books in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  They lead a very entertaining and informative discussion about the future of independently owned and operated book stores, and how they can’t compete with the price and convenience of buying books on-line.  What they have to offer is the bookstore experience; the magic of walking off of a busy street into the hushed presence of fully stocked bookshelves, the feel and the scent of a new book in your hands, the difference between discovering and searching.  Google can return things searched for, but it can’t discover things the way you can wandering through the aisles of a bookstore.

Then it was time for the keynote address, “Writing From the Heartland,” delivered by New York Times best-selling author and Wisconsin favorite son, Michael Perry.   Perry is one of my favorite writers and something of a hero to me, coming from and writing about the same landscape I wrote about in Ojibway Valley.   I had the great pleasure and privilege last year to interview him via e-mail for the 2nd First Look website; later I had the opportunity to meet him in person, at a book signing event in Chicago.  His address was outstanding, funny and personal, and when he talked about how he loved the act of writing more than anything else and how lucky he was to get to do it, it resonated with the whole room.  For me it perfectly articulated what the conference had already done for me, and reminded me of how much I love to write.

Afterwards, it was time for the book signing event, and as I lingered outside the ballroom for instructions on where to go to set up, I stumbled upon Perry.  I said “Hi, Mike,” and as he looked at my name tag, a spark of recognition lit in his eyes and he smiled and said “Hey.”  I told him it was as usual a great presentation, and he smiled a “thanks,” and I let him go.

About a half hour later, I was assigned a table to sell my book from, and I saw Perry setting up at a table not too far away.  I was eager to show him Ojibway Valley and get some reaction, maybe some advice, but I was hesitant to approach him, fearing that I’d come across as Kathy Bates to James Caan in Misery.  However, emboldened by our earlier exchange of pleasantries, I went up to him anyway. I took a copy of his latest book, From the Top, a collection of essays he wrote for the NPR show he hosts, Big Top Radio, and leafed through it, regaling him with my memories of two of my favorite episodes, one that featured Rickie Lee Jones, with Perry’s essay on being cool, and the episode featuring Steve Earle, where Perry’s essay included a mention that he knew the names of all of Earle’s ex-wives, which Earle (sarcastically) thanked him for later in the show.  I commented that I doubted that Earle remembered all the names himself, to which Perry replied, “I’ll bet his accountant remembers.”  We talked like that for a couple of minutes, and it felt like I was talking to an old friend, the exact way I feel when reading his books (even though on some level I felt like Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live interviewing Paul McCartney – “Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was cool.”).  I appreciated this, and decided against thrusting Ojibway Valley in his face, that it would be an intrusion on his good nature.

The book signing event was much bigger than I thought it was going to be, with dozens of authors peddling their wares.  All the nervousness I felt beforehand quickly faded away, and as we waited for the doors to open to the public, I went from table to table, talking to each author, asking about their books and how they published and so on.   It was great, there were a lot of great books and writers, and I felt like I was one of them, like I belonged, and that all the cold winter nights I spent alone in my office trying to tap out something coherent weren’t a waste of time after all.

Then the event began, and the public entered.  All told, in about two hours, I sold and signed four books.  That doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s four more than I was expecting to sell, it felt like I’d made the New York Times best seller list.  It was the conversations I had with people more than anything else, conversations about the book, about the cover (for which I received so many nice comments), about why I wrote it, about where they were from and what they did there.  I had several people take my business cards, so maybe some will visit my web page, and maybe a couple more of them will buy my book on-line.

Near the end of the session, feeling brave, I took a copy of Ojibway Valley and approached Joanne Berg, owner of the Madison bookstore and panelist from the morning’s session.  “Wouldn’t this look great on the shelves of Mystery to Me?”  I asked.  She politely took down my name and contact information, and as I thanked her and walked away, I saw her fellow panelist and owner of the Spring Green Arcadia Books, John Christensen, leafing through the copy of my book I had left with her.  A couple of minutes later, after I’d returned to my table, John approached me and told me he thought my book might do well with his clientele, and gave me his business card, saying that maybe we could schedule an event at his store.  I tried to project a cool and calm exterior as inside I was saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Later in the afternoon, with my Parkinson’s fatigue catching up with me, Thomas Cannon and I went to one last session, on “Demystifying Marketing,” again hosted by Kimberli Bindschatel.  It was another great session, instead of the usual “have a web site, use social media, establish a platform,” focusing on understanding yourself, your customers, and the content of the messages you deliver.  It gave me lots to think about, things I’ll be working on in the next few days.

Saturday night, I stayed in my room, stiff and exhausted, and watched the Badgers heartbreaking loss.  I slept well, and woke up and packed my bags, deciding to get an early start home.  Before I checked out, I took what remaining books I had down to the basement parking lot and put them in my car.  On the way back to the ninth floor, the elevator doors opened, and there, standing in front of me, was my “old friend”, Michael Perry.  “Hi, Mike,” I said, and he said, “Oh, you’re going up?  I’m going down.”  We waved to each other and the doors shut.   I went back to my room, got the rest of my bags, and returned to the lobby to check out.  I got to the front desk just as Perry was leaving.

We smiled and waved good bye to each other, just two writers going their respective ways.

Thanks to Laurie Scheer and everyone else at UW-Madison’s Writers’ Institute for a great conference!