Sunday, April 26, 2009

Population: 485

I just completed reading a book that has been one of those books for me. Sitting in my "to read" pile for far too long. And when this happens, more often than not, the book is returned to the shelf unread and is replaced by the most recent purchases from wherever it is that I'm buying books from this week.

The book, as you may have surmised from the title of this post, is Michael Perry's Population: 485. It's not really a new book, so this probably isn't news to anyone (though he does have a new book out, now at the top of my list). It does exactly what a good memoir should do: it shows the inherent paradoxes of living. The paradoxes we all face. Perry's great insight here is that he can see the paradoxes in his own life and is completely ok with these paradoxes (the trick being that even if you aren't ok with them - which most of us seem not to be - you're going to live with them anyway). He's more than willing to see the incompatibility of the varied lives every person inhabits (the public self, the working self, the private self), weigh out what it means to him, knowing that truth is subjective, and just roll with life as it comes.

I'm little biased here, to be sure, I grew up in a town neighboring his little hamlet of New Auburn, Wisconsin, where the majority of Population: 485 takes place. The book deals with him returning to the small town of his birth and trying to reintegrate himself to everyday life there. He's a writer and volunteer firefighter. His "career" doesn't place him in the mix of community life and, as he finds out, you don't just get accepted into a community (of any kind) just because you're standing nearby. The subtitle of the book, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren At A Time, sums up the trajectory of what the book is getting at. Yet, the book does so much with so little. It deals with the desire for adventure and heroism, the desire for communal acceptance, what happens when the desire for acceptance isn't compatible with your lifestyle, the nature of watching death repeatedly and how that affects his life, of being someone that an entire community becomes dependent on.

In one passage in particular he digs into what death really means to a community, and looks at how we deal with death on a more personal level, and how we deal with the death we see all the time that doesn't necessarily directly involve our own lives. He sees some old women discussing the recent death of a girl in the community at a cafe. They don't appear to have known the girl very well, if at all. This passage is just beautiful:

Names sand-blasted into the polished Bangalore marble of the Vietnam Memorial, notes left at Ground Zero in New York, the white rose on the folding chair [left in memory of the girl in question at the graduation she would have attended], these are commemorations, but they are also attempts by the living to draw conclusions from the dead. A lot of it, I'm sure, comes from years of being steeped in Christianity, of being told Christ died for our sins. For something. Surely, we tell ourselves, we can't die just because we hit a patch of pebbles on a curve. Surely this is preordination in the pea gravel. We are creatures of myth, hungry for metaphor and allegory, but most of all, hungry for sense. Death-a stillness within the chaos, after all-serves these cravings. Death provides us the pretext and the context within which we may arrange and participate in out own symbolic mythology, to establish significance and import, to reassure ourselves that it all means something. Death is the ultimate passion play, and we want to be on the bill, if only as a member of the chorus.
Ultimately, he finds the redemptive value in this. He sees the paradox in how we deal with death. They grieve because it is part of a communal process, if that can't help the family in a tangible way, if they can't bring the girl back to life, they can try to join in the grieving and make it a communal moment. The flaws in the logic being obvious he praises our desire nonetheless, as humans - as animals, to come together over death.

I highly recommend reading this book. It looks as though it may be some sort of regional fare, a book about small town life. It is not. It is much more than that. It is one of the best memoirs I've probably ever read.