“Do you remember Noel Perrin driving his eco-car around town?” I ask.
My husband laughs, “Yes.”
“What color was it?”
“Red,” he says. He pauses and thinks some more. “Definitely red.”
I open my laptop and search Amazon.com. Indeed, yes, there is the book Solo: Life with an Electric Car, Noel Perrin’s account of driving his retrofitted electric Ford Escort across the country in 1991. The end of his road was Thetford, Vermont, the small New England town where my husband grew up. The car on the front cover is red. He really has seen Perrin’s vehicle zooming around.
I wait for more details, but he has returned to his own reading.
I return to my reading: Perrin’s essay collection Best Person Rural. “Vermonters don’t gush,” Noel Perrin says. Tell me about it.
Noel Perrin – essayist, Dartmouth College professor, self-described Sometime Farmer – is exactly the right person to tell me about it. He was an honorary Vermonter. Though he grew up in New York, he spent most of his adult life in rural central Vermont. As English Department faculty, he wrote his share of academic pieces (one book, unexpectedly, having to do with the history of guns in Japan), but he is mostly known by the essays he wrote about where he lived. Those who know him best think first of his Person Rural essay collections. These are his accounts of the experiences and relationships, both meaningful and humorous, connected with life on his farm.
Best Person Rural is the final of the five Person Rural books, a posthumously-selected collection across his essay-writing life. Its hardback cover is also red, just like that eco-Escort. The book was an early present from my mother-in-law on my first New England Christmas visit. “Here,” she said, handing me the gift-wrapped book. “I want you to understand where your husband comes from.”
Perrin writes about this place, its landscape and its people. Interesting neighbors, covered bridges, cow highways, and maple syrup. And he writes about many of the things I appreciate most, actually, about another author concerned with conservation and community: Wendell Berry. Townspeople, history, continuity. Humor. I was destined to love Perrin from the start, and I read Best Person Rural every morning for weeks in a row. With each page turned, there’s more and more to love: economy in spending and acquiring, generosity in knowing and living. Curiosity about the way things work. Willingness to try and fail. So I became a fan, immediately and fast.
I continued to read more collections of essays by Perrin, and I sank comfortably into the feeling that I was sitting on an old front porch, hearing worn, grey boards creak under the shifting weight of rockers as he told me tales of his land, his house, his most recent escapades, his neighbors – some nice and some not. He was never hard to listen to. And so I wanted to write about him, to spread his name far and wide – but I couldn’t. Any analysis I tried took me straight off that porch and into some dull, dry academic space, which was decidedly un-Perrin.
The thing about Perrin is that his writing was not yet my kind of writing, and so I didn’t know how to talk about it. He demonstrates this best when, in his final essay, he talks about something that’s as serious as it gets: the disease that was killing him. He, in typical Perrin fashion, mentions it almost in passing. It gets only a small paragraph in the middle of a heartfelt essay about why he and his wife love their Thetford farm. “I have developed a remarkably unpleasant version of Parkinson’s disease,” he says. “One of the unpleasant things it does – one of the very minor ones – is make it impossible for me to lift heavy rocks. Heavy anythings, actually. Thank God for chinkers.” And then he’s off to talk about cider-making. I didn’t get it yet. I was only beginning to see that understatement and simple sentences could pack a strong punch. I didn’t get that this kind of writing was a legitimate and difficult and even beautiful kind of craft. At the time, I leaned toward lyricism in my landscape prose. And when looking for lyrical prose, I look beyond Perrin’s nonfiction and find what I want, instead, in the likes of Wendell Berry’s Port William tales.
About the same time I was trying and failing at reviewing Perrin, Wendell Berry’s short story collection A Place in Time came out. Whereas Perrin is decidedly northern, Berry is firmly of the south. Hills and farms, rivers and floods, small towns, main streets, and bachelor antics provide fodder for heightened prose. There are moments of sheer hysterics and appreciation for the huge fun and lightness that human life can have: bachelors get pantsed in front of the widows they have crushes on. And the like. But goodness, there are moments in Berry that transcend, there in his imagined town of Port William. Like in the story “Fly Away Breath,” when four teenaged girls, sitting the night over their dying grandmother’s bed, watch as she breathes her last and sinks into death – or so they think. Suddenly, against the solemn silence, the old woman gasps deep and loud, and the girls, having received the fright of their lives, can do nothing but collapse into unbridled laughter. When their grandmother’s spirit finally does depart, it is under this blanket of sheer joy. It must have been the best of blessings to leave this life for the next like that. This kind of heightened spiritual moment is throughout Berry’s fiction; there is so much humanity and dying and blessing and joy, and I love this kind of thing.
But I love Perrin, too, and no academic analysis, it would seem, can do a good enough job explaining why. But I think that my inability to pull apart my love for Perrin is found in the beginning of Berry’s book, Jayber Crow. It begins with a warning:
“Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.”
Perrin forces me to heed. His stories are told for real life rather than an ivory tower. They are for reading and enjoying – and perhaps for recognizing and knowing – but not, I think, for explaining.
My mother-in-law nailed it half a decade ago when she handed me that copy of Best Person Rural: “Now you can know where we’re from.” I want to know the backstories of people and places. I want to see the bigger picture. In Berry, I find myself flipping from story to Port William story, tracking fiction characters across time, puzzle piecing them together. But this also is what’s great about Noel Perrin. He, too, tells me stories of a place – of people united by a specific place – in and across time. And it’s real and true. I want to know about Thetford, Vermont, and Noel Perrin tells me in print, just like my husband tells me via memory. That car was red; they all used to see Perrin zipping around town in it.
Here’s what I’ll say, and don’t tell Jayber. Perrin, for all he has in common with Berry, approaches imagination from the other side, rendering true experiences plainly, rather than imagined experiences lyrically. Perrin’s deceptively plain prose makes me laugh and then strikes me deep, all the same. C.S. Lewis says the best kind of story is the sort that brings glory this side of heaven, as close and ordinary as the bread on the table and the coals in the grate. But I don’t need to do any more analyzing or explicating. Perrin has done the best work on his own, right there at the beginning. A man who scours the country for a retrofitted eco-car a full decade before that kind of thing was done and drives it home across country, searching for recharging opportunities all along the way, and who convinces Dartmouth college to set up an electric parking space just for him, and who teaches English literature and tries an inexperienced hand at farming in rural Vermont – well, he’s at the least going to have interesting stories to tell, isn’t he?
“What do you think of that book you’re reading?” I ask my husband and await a response.
My husband’s thumb holds his place while he looks up to consider.
“I like it.” He’s in the first chapter of Robert Farrar Capon’s cookbook-memoir The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.
I won’t let him off the hook that easily, Vermonter or no. “Really?” I ask why. This isn’t ordinarily his type of book.
He thinks for another long moment, then simply says, “Because it’s about the world.”
So with Perrin. His Vermont essays are about a real place in time. They are simple, fun, and worth the read.
Photo Credit: Valley News