Saturday, May 16, 2009

Population: 485 (A Book Review)

Michael Perry, Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (San Francisco: Harper Perennial, 2003), 234 pages

After twelve years of wandering, Michael Perry returns to the land on which he was raised. An established author, who is also a nurse, he settles in the town of New Auburn, a place where the town office will lend out their sewer rod and not far from the dairy farm where he grew up milking cows. He joins the local fire department. The membership requirements aren’t too tough, he suggests. He has to be able to move and have a driver’s licenses. Helping his cause is his flexible schedule, allowing him to be on-call whenever he’s home. This book is the story of Perry meeting the people he served as a fireman and EMT.

Perry’s writing is folksy and humorous. Although each of the stories can stand alone, they are arranged in somewhat of a chronicle order. The first and last stories are tear-jerkers. The first, titled “Jabowski Corner,” tells of a particularly danger bend in a road. Soon after joining the fire department, Perry is called to a wreck at the location. In telling about the high school girl who’d lost control of her car, he recalls other accidents he’d know about at the curve. We learn of the nearby farmer for who the curve was named. We learn of the rescue squad’s valiant efforts and how they’re thankful when they get her onto the waiting helicopter, still alive. Getting her to the hospital gives her a chance. And we learn she doesn’t make it through the night. The book ends with even a sadder story. “Sarah” is about another accident victim, his young sister-in-law. Although Perry was out of town when the accident occurred, he writes of the hardship of being called to an accident when it’s family. In a small town surrounded by rural country, this happens too often. On the call were both of Perry’s brothers (including her husband), along with their mother who is an EMT. But between the sadness, there are lots of laughter and good times and Perry catches it all.

Each story centers on a theme. In one, he deals with his relationship with his brothers as he discusses fighting a structural fire. In another, he takes a jogging tour of the town, pointing out the sites and the town’s history. In another essay, we’re drowned in alphabet soup as Perry explains the procedure an EMT uses when approaching a victim. It begins with the ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation), and then gets more complicated. As I read each story, I was treated by being introduced to the characters around the fire department. A favorite is Beagle, a butcher whose two ex-wives both work at the town’s only convenience store.

Having just read the Rick Bragg’s family trilogy, I must compare Bragg and Perry. In a way, they’re both similar. Both stick out in the big Eastern Cities (Perry gets pleasure in hanging his “Billy Bob’s Honky-tonk jacket next to mink coats, while Bragg threatens to whip an intellect's ass at a Harvard dinner). Perry admits his inability at diagramming sentences, while Bragg is proud that he won a Pulitzer without having graduated from college. The sadness in Bragg’s stories come from the poverty he endured; in Perry’s stories, the sadness centers around the suffering of others. Both, ironically, write about a place named Auburn and make reference to its name in 18th century poem. Both authors are humorous, but I think Bragg is funnier than his Yankee counterpart. That said, I still recommend this book. It’s a treat and you’ll enjoy losing yourself in the stories.

My advice to Perry and his publisher… To really pull off the “redneck Yankee” persona, that cow crossing sign on the cover needs a few strategically shot bullet holes. Thanks TC for recommending Perry to me!
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.


  1. I like to read real life stories and this seems like book to pick up.

    That bullet hole thing would work great!


  2. The structure of this book is alone fascinating. I must commend you here, Sage, on your choice of great books. You are the master of uncovering life from these bound gems and sharing them generously with us!

  3. Gautami--I didn't know if others would get the reference--shooting signs is a redneck trait.

    Michael, I need to go back and note that my reading of Perry's works is due to TC's recommendation--those Cheese-heads stick together (she's also from Wisconsin)

  4. He can't diagram sentences. My kind of man. I'm working on my redneck yankee persona. The friends thing was a momentary lapse and should have been taken out of my post

    The Eldon's are making me get palms as I have one weird neighbor. Apparently I'm accepted, but he....They questioned me intensively on my one conversation with the fence neighbor. Guess it will be a post

    You're finally finished with elementary school!!!!!!!! I mean your daughter--no I don't :) Know too many parents--and it's not being helicopter parents it's caring and love and all that. And I wish I could thank my father for being such a parent in the 50's--60's

  5. I love books like this one because they simply describe Of course Bragg has had experiences well outside the norm for most of us, but he started out like everyone else. With even less, actually.

    Anyway, this was an excellent review, Sage. Very well done.

  6. ALWAYS love finding new books and love to see people reviewing them on their blogs!!! I'm definitely going to check it out!!! THANKS!

  7. Great review. Love your cover recommendation.

    There's always been a part of me that wanted to be an EMT. I've just never pursued it. I remember hearing a story one time of our local dispatcher having to send out an ambulance to a fatal accident which wound up being her brother.

  8. Pia, I can't diagram a sentence. :)

    Fantasy, I forgot the graffti--maybe that should go on the side of the barn (right next to the junked cars)

    Stephanie, Thanks! Have you read Bragg? Both authors are worth reading.

    Roman, thanks for stopping by.

    Bone, My cover recommendation may come from having spent too much time in the rural west, where all such signs seem to have received "fatal" shots.

  9. It's those small towns which have character and characters. Sounds like a good read.


  10. I keep reading your stuff about picking up Bragg and consider doing so, but it just took me well over a month to get through "Under the banner of heaven" (a great, if disturbing at times, read if you're interested), and haven't really made a move to pick up anything else.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed Perry! I don't really think he's funny, funny - just kind of amusing in that small town Wisconsinite way :)

  11. Randall, small town characters are what makes good towns and books!

    THanks Venus.

    TC, I have read Under the Banner of Heaven--actually it's a topic I know probably almost as much as the author--it is a good book.

  12. Funny but the nearest town that I grew up around and attended school at had a population of 485 back in the 80's. I'm sure it is much less now.

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