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Michael Perry

Topics/tags: Reviews, rambly

I remember the first time I heard (or heard of) Michael Perry. I was driving through the streets of Boone, Iowa [1], I turned on the radio to NPR, and I heard someone reading a story in which one of the main characters was falling in love with a woman because of how she treated her leather boots [2]. I loved how it captured a particular view of the world and the things people notice. The story later turned to a description of a woman in one of those late 1960’s Catholic churches [3]. It resonated with my experience with my in-laws. So I kept listening. Eventually, the show moved from the reading to an interview, and I discovered that the author was Michael Perry. Soon thereafter, he said something like, My friend, Dean Bakopoulos, is a faculty member and helped me realize that I was a bit cruel to the academic in this story. He made it better. Since Dean is a colleague at Grinnell [4], I sent him a note.

Then I bought The Jesus Cow, the book that Perry had been reading from. It’s a funny story about what happens when a quiet, private, farmer has a calf that is born with the face of Jesus on the side and, to his chagrin, people discover it and, well, chaos ensues. As in the readings from the radio, I found myself appreciating the tender, thoughtful, way that Perry approached his characters, even the ones we might like less. And, although the story is set in rural Wisconsin [5], it felt like it could, as easily, apply to rural Iowa. That is, it felt honest. And it also made me laugh.

Hence, I was thrilled to see an announcement that Dean was bringing Perry [6] to Grinnell as part of the wonderful Writers@Grinnell series [7]. I added the event to my calendar, dug out my copy of The Jesus Cow for an autograph, and waited.

I did have a moment of crisis that week. Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, was speaking at the University of Iowa the same night. I very much appreciate many aspects of Day’s version of Catholicism and wanted to see that talk, too. But I chose the Perry talk [8]. While I don’t know what I missed in the Hennessey talk, I’m certainly glad I took the time to hear Perry. He read a variety of excerpts from his books and, as I’d found previously, they were funny and thoughtful. He left me wanting to read more [9].

I had also hit the point that I was losing my ability to listen to news radio on the trip to Iowa City. The Kavanaugh hearings and the general state of the US made the trips frustrating. So I decided to pick up a few of Perry’s books on CD to listen along the way. Knowing that he reads his works helped convince me that I’d want to listen.

In the two weeks since, I have now listened to all of Population: 485 [10], as well as the additional essays and recorded live segment included in that audiobook [11]. Population: 485 tells the story of his return to his hometown and his experiences reconnecting to his neighbors, particularly through his service as a volunteer firefighter. While there were times I found myself laughing out loud, and I did continue to appreciate his thoughtful profiles of others (and himself), it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Many parts of the book draw on his experiences as a volunteer firefighter or EMT. And, well, in lots of those situations, people die. The last chapter had me in deep tears. That’s not quite what I was looking for my drives to and from Iowa City. But it was still better than swearing at the radio.

I’ve now moved on to Truck: A Love Story. So far, there’s much less death [12]. It’s also entertainingly rambly, which is also one of Perry’s other talents. At some point, I’ll probably burn out. For now, I value the time I spend listening to the books. And it makes the miles fly by.

I hope Dean brings Perry back to Grinnell some time soon.

Postscript: Learn more about Michael Perry and order his books and audiobooks at

Postscript: I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Perry recently. I wonder if it’s affected the way I write.

[1] No, I don’t think the Boonies comes from Boone; it’s certainly nearer a real city than, say, Grinnell."

[2] Very well, that is.

[3] I could be mistaken. My brain envisions a cinderblock basement, but I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.

[4] And a damn good writer.

[5] I think.

[6] Why do I refer to Dean by first name and Perry by last name? Um, because I know Dean, and I refer to friends by first name. However, my general practice is to refer to people by last name.

[7] Although I regularly offer my students extra credit to attend Writers@Grinnell, I don’t make it nearly enough. Evenings are hard.

[8] Thinking about a late-night drive home from Iowa City also helped me choose to be in Grinnell.

[9] It would be equally accurate to say that they left me wanting to hear more.

[10] Perry didn’t have a copy of the audiobook that day; I ended up borrowing it from our library.

[11] I think I’ve made four round trips in the two weeks, a bit less than my goal. That’s seven CDs of Population: 485 and one of Truck: A Love Story.

[12] The truck is dead, at least at the start of the book. But I don’t think I’ve heard about any human deaths.

Version 1.0 of 2018-10-16.