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Joe Versus The Volcano

by John Bloner, Jr.

Tom Hanks (Joe Banks) and Meg Ryan (Patricia Graynamore) star in the film, Joe Versus The Volcano.
"If you don't hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you'll get." Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

On March 9, 1990, playwright turned film director, John Patrick Shanley, brought his first feature, Joe Versus The Volcano, to the screen. Only a few years earlier, Shanley had scored an Oscar for his first screenplay, Moonstruck, and expectations were high for a picture that paired Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the first time (they would go on to make Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail together) and listed Steven Spielberg as its Executive Director.

The film flopped at the box office. NY Times' Vincent Canby wrote, "Many gifted people contributed to it, but there's no disbelieving the grim evidence on the screen".  Even when some critics praised the movie, they seemed to have watched a different film.  TV Guide called it "a thoroughly captivating romantic adventure in the grand tradition of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s".

While Joe Versus The Volcano wears some of the conventions of old-fashioned romantic comedy, the film, at its core, invokes another man named Joe.

Bill Moyers interviews author, editor and teacher Joseph Campbell on the PBS series, The Power of Myth.
"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."  Joseph Campbell

Two years prior to the premiere of  Joe Versus The Volcano, PBS aired a six-part series in which host Bill Moyers interviewed world mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. They discussed ancient tales, legends, and holy stories, and their impact on our lives. Campbell shared his insights on the hero's adventure. He said, "The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there's something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir."

Joe Versus The Volcano adopts the mythic structure of the hero's adventure to spin what seems on the surface to be a comic fable, but reveals, over time, like all good stories, its depth.

Joe Banks dreams of a better world.
"As depression makes us lose interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, our range of activities constricts. We stop taking chances, we avoid stimulation, we play it safe."  Richard O'Connor, PhD, "Undoing Depression"  

When Joe Versus The Volcano opens, the character of Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is a hapless guy who has lost his mojo, his life energy. He sits in a badly-lit office, accepting the abuses of his ill-tempered boss, and feeling downcast and ill. He is a suicide-waiting-to-happen.

Meg Ryan as Dede, on of three roles she plays in the film.
 Eight years earlier, Joe was a firefighter--he once saved three kids from a burning building--but the experience left him constantly afraid. Rather than face his fears, Joe has shrunk into a state of depression. He left the fire department to take a lousy job where little was expected of him. He  moved into a lousy apartment and led a lousy, lonesome life.

In a Walter Mitty-esque existence, he is only able to fantasize adventure by reading books--Robinson Crusoe, Romeo & Juliet, and The Odyssey--playing his ukulele, and gazing into a South Seas scene in his desk lamp (see image above).

While he's pined for the office's pretty secretary, Dede, (played by Meg Ryan, above), he's never acted on his desire. The screenplay describes the fire that is simmering below the surface when Dede and Joe are together.

"She looks at him. She's frustrated with this guy. This is somebody who she could go for, but he's just lying there like a dog waiting to be kicked. He looks at her. If he had the strength, if he were feeling a little better, he'd make a play for this woman. But he's helpless."

Joe has cowed to the dragon within, a dragon that weakens him, causes him to accept the abuses of his boss and make him feel that he is nothing but a broken coat rack for his cheap suit and gray fedora.

Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers, "Psychologically, the dragon is one's own binding of oneself to one's ego. We're captured in our own dragon cage. The ultimate dragon is within you. It is your ego clamping you down".

Joe Banks assaults his boss, Mr. Waturi (played by Dan Hedaya), just before quitting his job.
"The monster masks in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man. He's a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of the imposed system." Joseph Campbell

Joe Versus The Volcano invokes another story of adventure, Star Wars. While Joe's boss, Mr. Waturi, doesn't look like Darth Vader, he embodies the fear, anger, hate and suffering that took over Anakin Skywalker on his path to the dark side.

Mr. Waturi berates his staff while they cower in his presence. He is a poster child of the Peter Principle: a man who's risen through the company ranks to reach his own level of incompetence.

Darth Vader, unmasked

Like Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Mr. Waturi can be seen as someone to pity rather than to fear. When Joe Banks muscles up the courage to stand up to his boss, Waturi shrinks into a corner.

If Joe had spent another eight years in his job, he
may have become just like his boss, lost to himself and of little good to mankind.

In one special scene--in a film filled with many special scenes--Joe faces his fear. He tells Mr. Waturi,  "I ask myself, why have I put up with you? I can't imagine but I know. Fear. Yellow freakin' fear. I've been too chicken shit afraid to live my life so I sold it to you for three hundred freakin' dollars a week!"

"There's a black fog of tissue running right down the center of your brain. It's very rare. It's will spread at a regular rate. It's very destructive."  Dr. Ellison (played by Robert Stack) delivers his diagnosis to Joe Banks.

Joe Bank's adventure is set into motion by a doctor's diagnosis. He learns he is dying and has only months to live.  The diagnosis: a "brain cloud". *  "You have some time left, Mr. Banks," he instructs him. "You have some life left. My advice to you is: live it well".

Joe had stopped living his life years ago. He doesn't know how to get it started again without receiving a little help.

* Note: While medical text doesn't turn up any mention of a brain cloud, there exists a condition known as brain fog. According to Lawrence Wilson, MD, "brain fog may be described as feelings of mental confusion or lack of mental clarity. It can cause a person to become forgetful, detached and often discouraged and depressed."

I'm trying to see the hero in there," Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) tells Joe Banks.
"Tricksters serve several important psychological functions. They bring about healthy change and transformation, often by drawing attention to the imbalance or absurdity of a stagnant psychological situation." Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey

Joe isn't aware of what is about to happen after he quits his job. Left to his own devices, he might putter about his crappy apartment, pluck his ukulele and fantasize from time to time about Dede until the day his brain cloud (read "depression") closes over him.

A knock on his door changes his life. With his carved duck-handled cane and maidenhead pipe, Samuel Harvey Graynamore (played with wide-eyed aplomb by Lloyd Bridges), bursts into Joe's apartment to propose a business deal.  Graynamore will finance a trip-of-a-lifetime for Joe to sail to a South Seas island if Joe will agree to commit ritual suicide once he reaches that place by jumping into the island's volcano.

Graynamore is an industrialist who is in need of a mineral that is in abundance on the island. The island's tribe are willing to provide this precious commodity to him if he can furnish a volunteer who will appease their volcano's angry fire god.

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won."  Joseph Campbell

Who is Samuel Graynamore?  Some suggest he's the devil incarnate. He could otherwise be a magical helper on Joe's heroic journey (see diagram above).  Joe has already crossed the first threshold by quitting his job and tossing out his fedora, a symbol of his so-called life in the wasteland.

Graynamore could also be a trickster, that is, a deity in human form who meddles in the affairs of man. Typically, a trickster's plans turn against him. He is tricked by his own devious deeds. Meanwhile, in spite of his intentions, the trickster often brings about something good.

Without pause, Joe accepts Graynamore's deal. He has nothing to lose . . .but his own life.

"There is a magnificent essay by Schopenhauer in which he asks, how is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without the thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other?"  Joseph Campbell

Joe's adventure begins as a journey toward a ritual suicide. He wants to die on his own terms rather than to allow the Grim Reaper to take it from him at some unexpected hour. Unbeknownst to him, he is placing himself in accord with ancient traditions. Joseph Campbell comments, "The New Testament teaches dying to one's self, literally suffering the pain of death to the world and its values. You die to your current world in order to come to another of some kind".

Joe Versus The Volcano charts Joe Bank's life from a time when he is obsessed with every ache or sniffle of his body. He's constantly running to doctors for a diagnosis. As he heads out across the Pacific Ocean toward a tiny island where he'll jump to his death, something of interest happens to him. His ego begins to die. "I have no interest in myself," he says while sailing across the sea. "I think about myself, I get bored out of my mind."

Joe Banks meets Samuel Graynamore's depressed daughter, Angelica.
"Listen to me. If you have a choice between killing yourself and doing something you're scared of doing, why not take the leap and do the thing you're scared of doing?"  Joe Banks to Angelica Graynamore

Joe meets several people on his passage toward the South Seas island. He encounters one of Samuel Graynamore's daughters, Angelica, a bored, depressed redhead (played again by Meg Ryan), who lives in the shadow of her rich father. She's a self-proclaimed flibbertigibbet flitting from one thing to the next, like the myth of the bird of paradise, which Europeans once thought were legless fowl, remaining forever in flight.

Angelica has not learned how to stand on her own two feet. "Did you ever think of killing yourself?", she asks Joe, and the film audience can fill in the answer. The nearness of death has been Joe's only hope for years.

A funny thing happens to Joe in Los Angeles, however. Rather than be dragged down into Angelica's morose world, Joe attempts to pull her out of it. "Why would you do that?", he asks her. "Some things take care of themselves. Maybe they're not even your business. If you have a choice between killing yourself and doing something you're scared of doing, why not take the leap and do the thing you're scared of doing?"

One reason why Joe Versus The Volcano may have failed to attract a large audience is that a mass audience did not want existentialism with their popcorn. Instead of a meet-cute romantic comedy, they were treated to characters who spoke of suicide, of the existence of God, of their own insecurities and being cut off from humanity and not knowing if they want to be included in it anyway.

Captain Willard and his crew arrive at Colonel Kurtz' outpost in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
"The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Joe Versus The Volcano resembles Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel, and the film Apocalypse Now, in the way these works depict one man's long journey, fought against many obstacles, to a mysterious destination and the lessons learned along the way. While Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are harrowing descents into the marrow of madness, Shanley's film is instead an ascent from madness toward wholeness and love.

Shanley's world is often filled with music, including Georges Delerue's romantic score, a rendition of Ol' Man River by Ray Charles, Blue Moon by Elvis Presley, and a mariachi band performance of Lerner and Loewe's classic, On The Street Where You Live. Shanley's characters speak like no other in modern film. They are over-the-top about everything: love, death and the meaning of life.

Craig Ghoulson of Bomb Magazine writes, "Shanley chooses characters stretched to the breaking point between rage and love. His are  characters of obsessive passions who match those passions with hyper-melodic language".

Former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich once said, "One of my safety valves is an appreciation for life's absurdities . .  .Life isn't a funeral march to the grave. It's a polka".

This sentiment sums up Joe Versus The Volcano. As Joe loses his material goods and his former sense of self disappears, his soul grows lighter, so even when he's marooned at sea without any hope for tomorrow, he can dance the day away.

His gesture of arms-raised-to-heaven is echoed later in the film, when he experiences the full magnitude of being alive during the rising of the moon. (See end of this article)

"Life is divided into two groups -- those who utterly hate Joe Versus The Volcano and those who absolutely, unequivocally love it. And it's about 90-10 against. I'm with the 10%." Robert Elisberg, Huffington Post

"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement." Patricia Graynamore (Meg Ryan)

When Joe sails across the Pacific Ocean toward  the tiny island called Waponi Woo, he meets the captain of the boat, Patricia Graynamore (once again, Meg Ryan), a half-sister to Angelica. In terms of temperament, she is the moon to Angelica's sun. Unlike the dormouse Dede or her hollow half-sister, Patricia is pretty much her own woman . . . or so she pretends to be.

The screenplay describes her as "a magnificent, athletic, truly feminine, blonde, blue-eyed woman in her late twenties." What it doesn't reveal right away is that Patricia is searching for meaning, too. "I'm soul sick and you're gonna see that, like my sister," she tells Joe once they have set sail on her vessel. "She's soul sick, too."

Joe Banks' journey becomes much more than a passage from darkness to light. Each person he comes into contact with on his adventure is uplifted by his good spirit and kindness. "We're not on a journey to save the world, but to save ourselves," Joseph Campbell said. "But in doing, you save the world."

Abe Vigoda as the Chief of the Waponis.
"Any movie that puts Abe Vigoda in the dress of a Polynesian chief...is okay by me." Roger Ebert

When Patricia and Joe arrive at the island, they are greeted by a tribe, the Waponis, who live peacefully, drink large amounts of orange soda (aptly named "Jump"), and who are fearful of their island's volcano god.  It's been one hundred years since someone fell into the fire of the volcano, and it's high time that another victim gives up his life.

What's apparent through this film is that Joe has already taken the leap. He's already given up his life, but not in the way he could have ever imagined back in his crappy apartment.

Joe Versus The Volcano is a movie of moments. Its penultimate moment arrives when Joe, nearly dead from dehydration and adrift on the ocean, witnesses the rising of the moon as he has never witnessed it before. The lunar ascent lifts him to his feet in love and celebration of life before he drops again from weakness, but also in humility.

"Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big . . . Thank you for my life." Joe Banks (Tom Hanks)

Some interesting facts: Georges Delerue, who created the score for Joe Versus The Volcano, wrote music for many of the greatest films of the 20th century, including Shoot The Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Hiroshima mon amour, The Conformist, and many more.

After directing his first picture, John Patrick Shanley did not direct another film for eighteen years. In 2008, he created a film adaptation of his play, Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Given the raw emotions of Shanley's characters, it's appropriate that in 2013, Doubt was transformed into an opera, receiving its premiere with the Minnesota Opera.

In 2012, Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois selected Joe Versus The Volcano to open the festival.  At
that time, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "As you will see, John Patrick Shanley's film is so visionary and epic in conception that it really requires a big screen . . . to make its ideal impact."

Explore a Mother Lode of pictures, sounds, facts and speculation about Joe Versus The Volcano by clicking HERE. Visit the movie's page at the Internet Movie Database by clicking HERE.



by Jav Rivera

I'd say it's about time someone said it: Rich Koz is a ham. But as a ham fan, I'd say that it's because of his hamminess that he's become such a Midwestern icon. To the rest of the world who don't already know him...let me introduce you to Rich Koz's alter ego, and my first hero (not including my older brother)...Svengoolie!

Rich Koz as Svengoolie (modern version, circa 1990s/2000s)
To the uninitiated, Svengoolie is a horror host from Chicago, IL. What's a horror host? Quite simply, it's a character who introduces old movies (typically science-fiction, horror, and B-movies). Some of the more famous horror hosts are Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Vincent Price, Joel Hodgson (of Mystery Science Theater 3000), Vampira (who was arguably the first horror host), and many, many more.

Often, they produce segments before and after a commercial break. What most people don't realize, however, is how much work they put into those segments. Rich Koz, for example, does the majority of his own writing. His segments include trivia tidbits, song parodies, jokes, and one of his best bits - a question to the audience that is then answered by the next line of dialogue within the movie. He's also known for getting rubber chickens thrown at him after telling a bad joke.

Currently "Svengoolie" is featured on ME-TV but the show's history dates back to the 1970s, with a long, winding road.

Svengoolie (vintage version, circa 1970s/1980s)
But before we can talk more about Rich Koz's Svengoolie, we have to address Jerry G. Bishop - the original Svengoolie. In the fall of 1970, Bishop aired the first episode of "Screaming Yellow Theater", the show's original title, on Channel 32 (WFLD). In the later seasons, Rich Koz, who was a college student at the time, sent in sketch ideas for the show. Eventually, Bishop hired him to work as a writer.

"Screaming Yellow Theater" ran until 1973 and was replaced by another horror host show after Field Communications (who owned Channel 32 WFLD) was bought out by Kaiser Broadcasting. In 1978, Field Communications bought back WFLD, and it was at this time that Bishop and Koz discussed bringing back "Screaming Yellow Theater".

Jerry G. Bishop as the original Svengoolie
But this time, Rich Koz would take on hosting duties, in a new persona named "Son of Svengoolie". The show's title was also changed to match the titular character.

"Son of Svengoolie" ran from June 1979 until January 1986.  During that time, the show had won three Chicago Emmy awards. It was during this part of Sven's history that I began to watch. If memory serves me correctly, the show ran on Saturday afternoons. Part of me thinks that it also ran on late night TV, but because of my age, I only knew about the afternoon version. To me, it didn't matter. My weekend started out around 5 a.m. to watch my Saturday morning cartoons, and peaked with the airing of "Son of Svengoolie". But one Saturday afternoon, I couldn't find the show. I thought maybe I was on the wrong channel.

It turns out that in 1986, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television Stations Group bought WFLD to become a part of the newly-created FOX network. The new management canceled the show.

This was a time before the Internet, so news about such things was not readily available. Can you picture a very confused boy searching for Sven every Saturday afternoon? Even worse, can you picture hundreds, maybe thousands of other kids doing the same thing? We may have been lost, but fortunately, Rich Koz endured. As well as working in freelance radio, including Chicago Station WGN radio, he also worked for FOX in different capacities. He became weekend and fill-in weather anchor for FOX 32 News, and later hosted "Stooge-a-Palooza," a program that reran "The Three Stooges" episodes.

Later, FOX aired a Son of Svengoolie-like program entitled "The Koz Zone," hosted by none other than Rich Koz. Most of the show's skits were similar to the previous incarnation, however, Koz did not wear a getup or makeup. Instead, the show appeared as if Koz had been breaking into the airwaves and presenting his show illegally, a bit ironic considering the fact that FOX had canceled his "Son of Svengoolie" series.

Rich Koz
As a fan of "The Koz Zone", I tuned in every Saturday night to watch old black-and-white movies. His dorky humor tailored to my adolescent mind. It was like having one of my friends over; he just happened to be a tad older. As a die hard fan, I was shocked at the end of one episode in which Svengoolie appeared out of nowhere. He ran up to the FOX building and began banging on the door, arguing that Koz was ripping off his show. It never occurred to me, as a young viewer, that Koz and Svengoolie were one and the same. (Remember, I was a kid). And although it was late into the Saturday evening, I was so excited that I had trouble sleeping that night. I remember hoping that they were planning on bringing back "Son of Svengoolie". But for some reason, my memory fails to remember if anything came of that appearance. Perhaps it was just a tease to Svengoolie fans.

"The Koz Zone" later turned into "Koz Zone for Kids". It was similar to its late night predecessor, but instead of old movies, Koz hosted weekend afternoon cartoons. He also had trivia segments entitled "Have You Ever Wondered?" (Historical information for his show is scarce so the title of this segment may not be totally accurate.) "Have You Ever Wondered?" featured strange oddities that most children ponder. One topic covered in this segment was why we yawn. As the segment ended Koz jokingly asked, "And why are yawns so contagious?" And with a split screen of two different Koz's, one yawns while the other reacts by yawning as well. It's this curious, child-like mind frame that has always carved out his niche. We all have a little dork inside of us that asks curious questions. Koz knew exactly how to tap into that.

"The Koz Zone" only lasted four years and was canceled around 1994. By this point, I was a senior in high school and had lost touch with his show. For me, even though Koz had been working on television, the character of Svengoolie had long since disappeared.

My college years passed and I was living in Milwaukee when I discovered that Svengoolie had been back on the air on WCIU-TV (Channel 26). This time, however, his mentor, Jerry G. Bishop, had deemed Koz as too old to continue using "son" and granted him the honor of just "Svengoolie". Koz, with Bishop's blessing, took on the new name for his new show entitled "Svengoolie," which began airing in 1995. Unfortunately for me, I only had become aware of it around 2000 or 2001. As soon as I made this discovery, I searched online for the show and was able to contact Mr. Koz via email. I expressed my gratitude for his work and asked if it was possible for him to sign a rubber chicken if I mailed it to him. (This is something he no longer does, more than likely because of the volume of requests.)  He not only signed the chicken, but he also sent me an autographed picture. I immediately framed the picture, and have had it in my possession for over ten years.

Autographed rubber chicken circa 2000
In April 2011, the show became available nationally on the Me-TV network. And, despite a recent heart attack in November 2012, "Svengoolie" has been going strong.

Sven and Doug Graves
The show is much like what I remember as a child: silly jokes, song parodies, rubber chickens, gags about Berwyn (a city in Illinois), trivia, and a small cast of characters including Doug Graves (played by long-time collaborator Doug Scharf), Zallman T. Tombstone, Kerwyn, and Durwood the Dummy. In addition, Koz is a master of the double take. As a child, I learned to imitate his version of the double take, and am proud to say that it had served me well among my childhood friends.

Svengoolie may not be a character that is widely known around the world, but you may be surprised by the people who do know him. And those same people, as well as his huge fan base, hold both Rich Koz and Svengoolie in high regard.

Elvira and Svengoolie
And all this history and humor from a hammy college student who just wanted to help Jerry G. Bishop on a silly local television show. For more information on Svengoolie, visit his official site: www.svengoolie.com

TRIVIA: Several of the voices throughout the show are provided by Rich Koz, including some of the off camera voices that he has "conversations" with.

Autographed photo, circa 2000


Michael Perry

by Dave Gourdoux

Michael Perry in his natural habitat

Making the five and a half to six hour drive from my home in the far southeastern corner of Wisconsin to my cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, I exit Interstate 94 at Eau Claire, and head north on state highway 53, a four lane asphalt artery that extends all the way to the state’s far northwestern extremity, the city of Superior.    For years, I always turned off of 53 at the exit for the town of Bloomer, until a few years ago, my dad showed me a shortcut.  By taking the next exit, Highway 64, and cutting across on a short country road I never learned the name of, I could connect to county Highway F and take it north to Highway M, thus avoiding the busy metropolis that is downtown Bloomer and shaving maybe a minute off of my trip.  Being the son of an over the road truck driver, I was raised with a healthy respect for the shortest pathway between two points, and now that he’s gone, choosing his shortcut is but one way I honor my dad’s memory.

But every once in a while, when I have time to kill and I feel the need to engage my writer fantasies, I take a couple of extra minutes and continue north on Highway 53 until I get to the County Highway M exit at the town of New Auburn, Wisconsin.

You have to look close, or you’ll miss what sets New Auburn apart from any of the other small towns in the area.  In fact, if you don’t look close, you’ll risk missing New Auburn all together.   But if you’re awake and paying attention, it’s right there for you to see: New Auburn is the only town I know of that has a photo of a book on its road signs. 
The population's changed, but the book cover remains

The book is Population:  485, and it was written by Michael Perry.   You might know Michael Perry as the host of the NPR show Tent Show Radio, or as the singer and songwriter for the band “The Long Beds”, or as the humorist with his one man show, The Clodhopper Monologues, or as the New York times bestselling author of the memoirs, Off Main Street, Truck:  A Love Story, Coop, or last year’s Visiting Tom.  Population 485 remains the book that put Perry, and tiny New Auburn, on the map.   It was selected as an entry in 2013’s World Book Night.

Population 485 chronicles Perry’s return, after a nineteen year absence, to New Auburn, where he grew up.   Shortly after moving back, he joined the volunteer fire department, where two of his brothers were also volunteers and his mother was an EMT.   The book draws upon Perry’s experiences as a first responder and small town resident, getting to know new neighbors and being reacquainted with old friends.   It’s funny and harrowing and sad.  It’s about life and all of its absurdities, and it’s about death, as in the literal death of strangers and loved ones, and in the figurative slow death of a way of life.

Listening to Perry talk, whether in radio interviews or delivering his monologues, you hear the slow paced voice of a relaxed and humble man who isn’t all that impressed with himself.   It’s the voice of a regular guy, and his accent is unmistakably rural and north-woods Wisconsin.  Sometimes, you get the sense he’s laying on the “aw, shucks” shtick a little too thick.   But don’t let the corny humor and self deprecation fool you.  Read his work; the dude can flat out write.  Check out the opening sentence to Population: 485:

           "Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun."
Population: 485 was a revelation for me, proof that I wasn’t the only one out there who enjoys both deer hunting and poetry.   It confirmed what I already knew, that beneath the stereotypes our culture marginalizes the inhabitants of rural small town communities with lie real people, people with eccentricities and shortcomings and flaws, but real nonetheless, capable of grace and love and honor.  The fact that their way of life and the land to which they are attached is under assault lends an aura of urgency to the book and to Perry’s subsequent work, including last year’s Visiting Tom, a triumph in capturing the heart and soul of a vanishing time and people.

Visiting Tom looks at Mike's new neighbors (since Population: 485 he's moved to a farm near Fall Creek, about thirty miles south of New Auburn), eighty-two year old Tom and his wife, Arlene.  Tom has lived his entire life on the same farm, and watched when, in 1967, the government installed Interstate 94 right through the middle of his property.   Perry contrasts Tom's experience with "progress" to his own struggles with the local government over improvements to the road going up the hill to his house.   In the meantime, he is getting to know Tom better, and learning a whole lot of history, about Tom and Arlene and how farming used to be done.

The book is about time and progress and life and death, but more than anything, it's about neighbors, and the responsibilities and rewards that come with getting to know one another.  This, to me, has always been Perry's unique gift - the ability to articulate our need to connect with other people.  He shows us what's human in even his most bizarre and eccentric characters, and grants them the simple and decent respect any human being deserves.  Visiting Tom reminds us that we're all in this thing together.

I was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, just up Highway 53, a piece from New Auburn.  Though I’ve lived most of my life in southeastern Wisconsin, my ancestors came to this country and  settled not far from where Population: 485 takes place, and I still have a number of relatives who live in the area.  I own a cabin and some hunting land just south of the town of Bruce, and I spend quite a bit of time there.   It's these credentials plus my writer ambitions that made me feel a sense of connection to Perry; in reality, it’s probably no deeper than the connection all of his readers feel to his work, the connection to what’s still inside us that was passed down from those who went before, the connection of our past to our present. 
Perry was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his work, specifically about his writing process and his relationship to the people and place he writes about.  His responses, like his writing, are thoughtful and funny and moving:  
Dave Gourdoux (DG):  The common theme, or subject of your writing, seems to be concerned with the intersection of time and place.  I love the scene in “Visiting Tom” when you explain your technique with the scythe to Tom, and ask him if you’re doing it right, when he replies that it sounds about right and then suggests you try “one a’ them gas-powered weed-whackers.” Your work frequently walks the tightrope between nostalgia and reality, and reveals truths that are either new to us or have been buried within.  How aware are you of this balancing act when you write, and how do you prevent yourself from tipping too far to either nostalgia or harsh reality?

Michael Perry (MP):  I'm always aware of that balance, but I don't always get it right. Nostalgia is a powerful source of reflection and evocation, so I find it disingenuous to dismiss it out of reflex. On the other hand, one does not wish to dredge readers through a nonstop nostalgia marinade. Tom's response was the perfect technicolor exclamation point after all my sepia tones.

DG:  One of my favorite anecdotes from” Population 485” is the one where they wanted to put you on a float in the Jamboree Days parade with a sign that said, “Writer.”  I’m interested in the on-going relationship between the artist and his subjects, and how each perceives the other.  How has success changed the way your neighbors perceive you?  Do you ever find folks either becoming more reserved or guarded with you, and contrarily, do you ever feel that some folks are performing for you, or auditioning for your next book?

MP:  Mostly my neighbors know me as a self-employed husband and father who sometimes needs help pulling his pickup out of the snowbank. And when they see my used minivan they understand whatever success I've had, I'm not bathing in coin. Sure, every now and then someone will say something and another person will ask, "You gonna put that in a book?", but it's nearly always in good humor. I have indeed had people ratchet up their performances when they thought I was looking for material. In one case, I just took the guy (a fellow firefighter known for pithy quotes) aside and said I was done with the book so he could give it a rest, and furthermore, his new material wasn't up to snuff. That was fun!

DG:  You've published four book length memoirs, each with a distinctive theme and narrative.   Do you worry about repeating yourself, about becoming formulaic?

MP:  I worry about that constantly. In fact, somewhere recently I said or wrote: "I have reached that stage in my life where every time I open my mouth I am either repeating myself or contradicting myself." I've recently taken on two fiction contracts just to give myself a little enforced breather from nonfiction memoir. 

DG:  You have a terrific eye, and a tremendous ability to derive and articulate meaning from the smallest of detail.   My favorite example of this is the description of Tom and Arlene’s cluttered kitchen table in “Visiting Tom.”  Please comment on the amount of detail you insert into your writing, and how you choose which details to emphasize. 

MP:  Sometimes I overdo it. I've had people say they skip those parts. It comes from John McPhee, who was well known for inserting paragraphs of pure description just to create a sense of environmental veracity, if you will. As far as choosing details, I primarily want items that reflect the nature or purpose of the setting as it relates to the story. Second, I am always looking for those slightly offbeat items that refresh the reader's interest and yet don't disrupt the setting in general (the miniature mirror ball in my brother-in-law's shop). Finally, I choose items and arrange them based on the poetic quality of the words themselves. Syllables, rhythm, assonance, all of those things. 

DG:  As a writer of personal, narrative non-fiction, you’re always a character in your work.  As such, a Michael Perry persona has developed, and it seems to have been perpetuated and deepened in your radio work and in the “Clodhopper Monologues.”  As true to yourself as you can possibly stay, it seems there would inevitably be some instances where the persona and the real person diverge.  How do you maintain your own identity, and how do you prevent the persona from consuming the person?

MP:  My immediate family does a fine and thorough job of sandblasting any lingering "persona" from my boots (and elsewhere) the moment I step through the front door. Obviously, when I am performing as a humorist or a singer, "persona" plays a role…but even then, when I turn sincere, or talk about my own self doubts and shortcomings, that is simply me. I know what an imperfect stumblebum I am, and why pretend otherwise?

DG:   In your experience, what is the most common misconception folks from either coast have about Wisconsinites?  

MP:  That we all have a red barn, a black and white cow, and a tub of cheese soaked in beer. But those are pretty benevolent stereotypes, and let's face it, our foam-cheesehead-per-citizen ratio is pretty high. That said, I do often take the opportunity to point out that the inner city Milwaukee experience is every bit as Wisconsin as pulling bluegills out of some northern lake. 

DG:  Your books have sold very well.   What do you think resonates with readers from different back grounds?   Have your books sold internationally?  I’m interested in whether the themes and subject matter you write about are uniquely American, or are more universal.

MP:  People are people, as the cliche goes. The accents and the number on the sign change, but not human nature. In Population, I write about my friend and fellow firefighter, a cross-eyed butcher. In Mississippi I signed a book for a man who made me look at his firefighter jacket, then pointed to his severely crossed eye, then loudly declared, "AND I'm a BUTCHER." I was right at home, a thousand miles from home.

I've had pretty much no international sales. Population 485 was published in Germany and I went over there on a surreal book tour during which I discovered the German publisher had gone belly-up and there was no book—but they had me do a tour and readings anyway. That story is about two hours long and filled with delightful absurdities. When I returned home, my wife said, "Well, how did it go?", and I said, "Y'know, I'm not sure…”

DG:  One of my very favorite pieces of yours is the essay, “Branding God” from “Off Main Street.”  I always come back to the passage where you compare the power of the charms of the young girl against Brother Tim and his “stage, and the sound system, and the raging heavens.”   I admire the respect you show to Brother Tim, even as you lose your own faith in him and the institutions he represents, and it’s a profoundly powerful and sad moment when he scans the crowd and no one has risen.  This not-so-simple respect shown for all of your characters is one of the truly remarkable facets of your writing.  How much of this respect comes from your upbringing, specifically from the church you were a member of when growing up?

MP:  My parents were firm in their beliefs and remain firm in their beliefs, and yet I have watched them live lives of utter humble compassion in act and deed. I will never live up to their example (have already failed) but I guess what I try to do is put myself in the shoes of others, and even if I can't agree with them, I try to say so between the lines rather than smack them with some self-righteous stick. Every major change in my beliefs and thinking (and there have been some big ones) has come about through extended (as in, years) of conversation and consideration, and not someone yelling at me or peppering me with bumper-sticker aphorisms.

DG:  Explain for our readers why the quality of a cheese curd is measured by its squeak.

MP:  The squeak is the essential, ineffable essence of the curd, and is, therefore, unexplainable.

For more on Michael Perry, including a schedule of appearances, you can visit his website: www.sneezingcow.com



The House On Mango Street

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

For the past two years, on April 23rd, volunteers across the US and UK have handed out free books as part of World Book Night, in hopes of spreading the joy of reading to those who might not pick up a book very often.  To become a "Book Giver", one has to apply via the website; part of the application process is to look through the list of that year's chosen titles, and choose a first and second choice of which one you'd like to give.  I’ve had the pleasure of being a “Book Giver” both years now, and as I sat at my computer a few months ago, looking through the list of available books for 2013, a title that I recognized popped out at me.  It was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book that I remembered reading in college and enjoying so much that I didn’t even consider selling it back to the university book store at the end of the semester, like I did with most of my other textbooks.  Since the World Book Night organizers ask that you be familiar with the book that you give, I made The House On Mango Street my number one choice, and was happy to receive an email later on, telling me that it was the book that I’d be sharing with others.

Not only was sharing The House On Mango Street special because it was part of a wonderful program, but because it was also a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book.  A collection of forty-four (sometimes extremely) short stories, The House On Mango Street has the distinction of being about a specific nationality (people of Mexican descent), but being completely universal at the same time. While any reader is bound to find at least one thing within the stories that speaks to their own experiences, they’ll probably find many more than just one.

As explained in an intimate forward in the beginning of this edition of the book, Cisneros began writing the stories in the novel in 1980, not knowing that they’d all come together as The House On Mango Street, although she’d already thought of that as a title for some of her written work.  Pulling material for the vignettes from a little bit of her own life and family, she also used her experiences living in what she calls a “down-at-the-heels…(Chicago) neighborhood, before it (was) discovered by folks with money”.  Her teaching job at that time was a source of sad inspiration too, as she heard the stories of students who had dropped out of high school but were working towards their diploma; students who suffered from abusive mates or parents, who had parents trying to cajole them into dropping out again so that they could go to work and help pay the bills, or single parents who were trying to balance studies and life in general.  The forward also gives a description of the author’s writing process for the book that will probably sound familiar to any writer.  Cisneros explains: “ The people I wrote about were real, for the most part, from here and there, now and then, but sometimes three real people would be braided together into one made-up person…I cut apart and stitched together events to tailor the story, gave it shape so it had a beginning, middle and end, because real life stories rarely come to us complete.  Emotions, though, can’t be invented, can’t be borrowed.  All the emotions my characters feel, good or bad, are mine.”

Author Sandra Cisneros
This braiding, stitching, remembering, and feeling come together beautifully in the book.  Esperanza, The House On Mango Street’s main character and narrator, is a unique storyteller.  On one hand, she begins telling the reader these stories while she’s obviously still a child, and because of that, some might say that she’s an unreliable narrator.  But instead of assuming that this has a negative connotation, you have to consider whether Esperanza’s observations aren’t somehow truer than an adult’s, not clouded by decades of biases and  preconceptions yet.  There are times that the narrative takes on the tone of an overall storyteller too, one who sees everything happening, and tells the events in a voice that makes it almost like a collection of little folk tales.

Cisneros has a knack for using plain language, and that definitely isn’t meant as any kind of insult.  In a section of the forward that touches on this, Cisneros tells us her reasons for gravitating towards this.  It makes the book more accessible to any type of reader, while still being full of lovely uses of language; explaining the difference between some neighbors’ laughter and she and her sister’s, Esperanza says that it’s “not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking.”  As the book progresses and Esperanza ages, there are even more moments that are universally relatable, that any reader who has made the journey from childhood to adulthood can understand. “Everything is holding its breath inside me.  Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas.”

As with most books that I've talked about on 2FL, I don't want to give too much away and spoil the adventure for you if you--hopefully--decide to read it yourself. And the quote that I mentioned above is a fantastic description for discovering this book, if you haven't already: "Everything (inside of it) is waiting to explode like Christmas".  I highly recommend seeking it out, as well as any and all of Cisneros' other work.  You can find her website at www.sandracisneros.com.