Book Review: Carolyn See on 'Coop,' by Michael Perry

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 22, 2009

COOP

A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting

By Michael Perry

Harper. 352 pp. $25.99

Several years ago, Michael Perry, a self-described "country chronicler" who made his home in New Auburn, Wis., published "Truck: A Love Story." It's the tale of how he, an aging bachelor and man-about-(small)town, decided to refurbish an ancient but classic International Harvester pickup. "Truck" was tightly constructed, full of village characters and rustic social events, and it also contained two romances, one involving his very eccentric brother, and the other, himself. The book, which ended in the author's wedding, was lighthearted and full of joy.

There's a reason why fairy tales end with "happily ever after," and leave it at that. Marriage can be a horse of a whole other color. Perry and his wife, Anneliese, share a fantasy of subsistence farming. They want to establish a closer connection to the ground and the food they eat; they want to live more authentic lives. This is not a pipe dream: They both come from farming families, and they both practice a frugality that comes close to being pathological. If the American economy ever recovers, it won't be thanks to these two. They abhor buying anything. Living off the land, for them, seems feasible and appropriate.

Perry and Anneliese move into a relative's farm, along with Amy, Anneliese's 6-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. They've been pining for chickens, and, Perry adds, "We are also going rural in the hope that we might become more self-sufficient in terms of firewood, an expanded garden, and perhaps a pair of pigs." But the variable here is the same one that plagued Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Perry makes his living writing, thinking, lecturing and playing music. In theory, you can farm and think at the same time; in practice, it doesn't always work that well. The author is away from home about 100 days out of every year, pursuing his career. He appears to be a great one for one-time projects -- he builds that chicken coop, for instance, over the course of the book. He does it in fits and starts, and that coop serves the structural function that the truck did in his last book. But pigs and chickens need to be fed every day; the garden needs to be shorn of weeds on a regular basis.

Anneliese gets pregnant; she's weary, she suffers from insomnia. Naturally, they decide to have a home birth. Naturally, they're home-schooling Amy. Naturally, every day that he's home, Perry has to go out to his office across the yard from the house and write. He's obsessed with meeting deadlines, a flurry of deadlines. So, while the tone of "Truck" was blithe and cheery, a nagging drag of sadness soon creeps into "Coop." It's as though a flimsy motorboat on a wide lake were being dragged down by an insistent, watery hand.

God knows Perry tries to be cheery. He tells us at length about how he succeeds in building a pig pen from scrap-metal sheeting he finds on the property, about how he and a friend get started on that chicken coop, about the virtues of splitting firewood and putting up hay, but he has made the decision to include some other things here as well -- for example, how it was for him growing up. His father owned a small dairy farm. He made a meager living but was responsible for a very large family -- six children of his own and enough foster children, some of them severely disabled, to total about 60 over the years. He and his wife belonged to an obscure Christian sect, which was so strict it wouldn't even allow itself a church to meet in. "Poor but pure" could have been his parents' unnervingly saintly motto. The author devotes pages to the horrors of breakfast when he was a kid -- a steady stream of Dickensian porridge, made from a variety of questionable and unappetizing grains. Some of this may serve to explain why he shied away from marriage for so many years. He loves his folks, but few people, outside of Mother Teresa, could live up to their standards. (Another, perfectly reasonable question to ask: Who would want to? Put another way: If you can't sleep, why not take a sleeping pill?)

As an old Topanga Canyon hippie, I confess to having raised goats and chickens. I'm biased, reading this, not as a city slicker but as a writer who thinks, as Perry dithers: For God's sake, do your thousand words a day, pay three bills and quit yer complainin'! Stop pontificating to that darling little girl about the sanctity of chores. Don't you know she might grow up to be a writer? How do you think your edifying words are going to sound in her own memoir? And in the future, when you've finished your thousand words, go out and help your wife. She's the one who's been working like a galley slave all through the pages of this book. But Perry, it turns out, is a hand-wringer. He makes earning a living for a family of four sound like storming the Bastille. This book is well worth reading, for just that reason: as a cautionary tale before you go out and buy a pair of pigs, or set about waiting for a flock of reluctant chickens to lay.

See may be reached at www.carolynsee.com.


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