“Somewhere between Garrison Keillor’s idyllic-sweet Lake Wobegon and the narrow-mindedness of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street lies the reality of small-town life. This is where Michael Perry lives.” — St. Paul Pioneer Press “Perry can take comfort in the power of his writing, his ability to pull readers from all corners onto his Wisconsin spread, and make them feel right at home.” — Seattle Times Tuesdays with Morrie meets Bill Bryson in Visiting Tom , another witty, poignant, and stylish paean to living in New Auburn, Wisconsin, from Michael Perry. The author of 485 , Coop , and A Love Story , Perry takes us along on his uplifting visits with his octogenarian neighbor one valley over—and celebrates the wisdom, heart, and sass of a vanishing generation that embodies the indomitable spirit of small-town America.
Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wisconsin.
Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues, is currently finishing his first young adult novel, and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.
Perry’s essays and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Backpacker, Outside, Runner’s World, Salon.com, and he is a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine. His writing assignments have taken him to the top of Mt. Rainier with Iraq War veterans, into the same room as the frozen head of Ted Williams, across the United States with truckers and country music singers, and—once—buck naked into a spray-tan booth.
In the essay collection Off Main Street, Perry wrote of how his nursing education prepared him to become a writer by training him in human assessment, and he credits singer-songwriters like Steve Earle and John Prine with helping him understand that art need not wear fancy clothes. Above all, he gives credit to his parents, of whom he says, “Anything good is because of them, everything else is simply not their fault.” His mother taught him to read and filled the house with books; his father taught him how to clean calf pens, of which Perry has written, “a childhood spent slinging manure – the metaphorical basis for a writing career.”
Perry has recently been involved in several musical collaborations, including as lyricist for Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, and as co-writer (with Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon) of the liner notes for the John Prine tribute album “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows.” Perry also collaborated with Vernon and Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne on a project that began when Vernon approached Perry and said, “Say, you’re a nurse…” The results were bloody, but then that was the point.
Of all his experiences, Perry says the single most meaningful thing he has ever done is serving 12 years beside his neighbors on the New Auburn Area Fire Department.
If I had to sum up my ‘career’ in one word, it would be gratitude. I get to write and tell stories all around the country, then come home to be with my family and hang out at the local feed mill complaining about the price of feeder hogs. It’s a good life and I’m lucky to have it.
This book, as much memoir as biography, was a shimmering jewel of keen observation and reverence for humanity. There were numerous passages that brought tears to my eyes. Tom reminded me of the few codgers who walked through my youth fixing fences, hauling rocks out of fields, and generally making impossible things from the materials they had on hand. Perry's willingness to lay himself bare in so many particulars is a beautiful thing, and one I honor. His tendency to maudlin middle-aged sentimentality is one I recognize and struggle with.
I knew even before I opened this book that I would love it. The cover photo of Tom Hartwig sitting on the running board of his Model A car drew me in as stories of older times and older people always do.
Michael Perry has written a beautiful, loving tribute to an 80 year old neighbor and his wife, and to their fading way of life. Tom brews his own wine, and makes his own machinery by patching together parts of others. He farmed for 60 years - corn and milk cows and sheep. His farm is the typical collection of barns, sheds, silos, piles of junk, gardens and beehives so common a century ago - but Tom's farm has been divided in half by the installation of a 4-lane highway. Imminent Domain gave the state right of way through his family's property in the 60s, leaving Tom and his wife with millions of vehicles going by their house every year, and ceaseless noise from the traffic. Tom doesn't like the highway, obviously, but the wisdom of his years has helped him come to terms with it. He and his wife show each other the kind of affection and devotion older couples usually have, and they can finish each other's thoughts and sentences. But they have an additional layer of closeness and acceptance as a result of the highway in their front yard.
Between the chapters telling Tom's story and some funny anecdotes Tom likes to tell visitors, the author compares his own character, career and mortality with Tom's. Perry is approaching middle age, and watching his children grow up too quickly. He wonders if his children will one day view him with the love and respect with which everyone views Tom. He also wonders if he could ever be as accepting of the unhappy and uncontrollable events that happen in every life - even as he battles the road commission over ruining the approach to his house. He sees the wrinkles on Tom's face - lines of patience and knowledge and those caused by a lifetime of laughter and squinting into the sun - and then looks into a mirror and sees his own father's face looking back at him.
Throughout the book are black and white photos of Tom being Tom. My heart contracted when I saw each one because I too have loved some dear old people who worked hard all their lives and who left this world poorer in character when they died. The common theme in all of these people is a spunky spirit, a can-do and make-do attitude, a devotion to spouse and family, and a great sense of humor.
Michael Perry has a writing style that will leave you feeling like you MUST know him from somewhere, and his humorous stories of raising children on a farm will make you want to try it for yourself. This was a wonderful book, and one that you will fall in love with if you appreciate the Greatest Generation and the gifts they gave to our country.
Visiting Tom A MAN, A HIGHWAY, AND THE ROAD TO ROUGHNECK GRACE
By Michael Perry, our local New York Times Best Selling Author
If it weren’t for the fact that local author Michael Perry (and singer, humorist, part-time pig farmer, volunteer fire-fighter and father of two) wasn’t such a gifted storyteller, I’m not so sure I would have chosen this as my next read. I’ve never been drawn to someone else’s view of someone else’s life since it usually comes across with a certain measure of judgment or prejudice. Not Perry.
This is a nonfiction peek into the life (long life, the guy’s in his eighties) of a rural, Fall Creek, Wisconsin native, who under normal circumstances would be perhaps have been overlooked altogether. Tom Hartwig’s story would most likely never have come to light if it weren’t for the fact that Perry is his neighbor and occasionally he needs a piece of iron cut, bent or welded. One of Tom’s countless talents.
“…Sometimes I visit in the company of my wife and two daughters; we bring food and stay for supper. Sometimes I visit to drop off a dozen eggs…I rarely come to Tom seeking anything more than ten minutes of his time and a size-sixty-eleven welding rod. He is not my mentor, I am not his acolyte, we are simply neighbors. And yet with each visit I accrue certain clues to comportment—as a father, as a citizen.”
Perry pulls the reader along by beginning each chapter with a photograph accompanied by a rather long opening section completely in italics. At first I imagined this was due to a change in viewpoint or a clever device to emphasize a dramatic overview of what was about to be revealed. Instead, Perry used this section to step into the role of narrator and also to let Tom’s voice come through clearly; while a couple of photographers attempted to capture him living his life through their carefully aimed lens.
Besides Tom and his wife of sixty years, Arlene, there’s another character forever lurking in the background of this account—the interstate. In 1965 the bulldozers came and literally split his farm in two, it officially opened in 1967 and is a constant buzz in the background of the Hartwig’s farm.
“A man could go sour for the mortal duration after suffering an intrusion of this magnitude. And truth is, you won’t have to prime the pump much to get an earful of Tom’s abiding disdain for the government and its bulldozers. ..He is not one to forget; neither is he one to fruitlessly linger.”
The only pushback I’m compelled to mention is something Perry has lamented of in past works and does many times in this book—his guilt of being away on book tours and missing out on his family’s life. It’s mentioned over and over and honestly, if Perry is feeling this bad about being on the road so much, maybe he should tell them—enough! But he can’t quit writing, it’s too important. He’s chronicling a portrait of life that could someday be the thing of legend.
“…In the meantime, back on earth, I should keep plugging away. A great weight lifts, and the message beaming back from endless billions of howling, earth-dwarfing gas balls is that infinity resides also in the smallest speck of light…”
Sometimes it takes visiting a neighbor to remind us—we’re in this together.
Not my favorite. The theme that provided a measure of cohesion, that of progress vs. tradition to *way* oversimplify, seemed to be a less perfect fit for all the bits Perry wanted to stitch together in this book. I wonder if it's possible the book wouldn't have been stronger if it had been more anecdotal. But then, Perry already has collections of brief essays, so I commend him for this effort.
Anyway, saying it's not Perry's strongest is still high praise compared to so many other history/ social commentary/ memoir/ etc. books out there. So, yes, I'm keeping this forever.
"Flagrant misuse of drywall screws is a hallmark of slapdash craftsmanship: I buy 'em by the case."
I need to find out what Tournapulls are. Some sort of earthmoving equipment Perry thinks are cool.
Robert Frost, extreme green blogger from southern Wisconsin, says "Environmentalists need more critical thinking skills." Honestly, I can't disagree. I'll have to check out his blog.
If you like the sort of book that depicts a true "character" from a rural setting, this one's for you.
This one's kinda like a less lyrical, more funny version of The Meadow by James Galvin, especially the parts about Lyle. If you liked that, you'll probably like this one, too.
For whatever reason, I can read Michael Perry describe equipment all day, even when I don't understand it. It's soothing, like watching that show The Repair Shop (which I'm so-so on because, for me, it wasn't technically detailed enough. I wanted to know how a clock is repaired, in detail. I'm probably the only one, but hey, if someone wants to make a TV show with detailed instructions on doing things like restoring old intruments, I'm in).
I'm going to start recommending Perry to my non-reader manly man high school students, as well as fathers, mothers, people who like to work with their hands, and anyone who likes rural life (in theory or practice). In short, there's something here for everyone.
When I say I'm going to recommend Perry to my high school boys, I mean no disrespect; quite the contrary. Perry has a way of writing really eloquently about things that are almost bygones - metal lathes, hand-cutting oats, International trucks, and such boyish fun concerns as shooting signs, artillery, dam-building, and heavy earth moving. There is an innate respect in his careful wording when he describes things that we blithely oblivious suburbanites regard with steep-nosed disdain. This careful poetry about "everyday" things that nobody can do anymore is what really grabs the reader. I've never harvested oats, but I feel richer for having read Perry's account of how it's done, and his appreciation of hard work and heritage will ring true to anyone who's ever done things the hard way, either on purpose or incidentally.
Additionally, Perry is a the right kind of literature fan's pipe dream: he's practically a living version of a Tolstoy character. You have the nobleman's pursuits of the examined life, lived in monologues, articles, books, and now tweets, all juxtaposed against the work-hard-or-starve necessity of raising animals and planting crops, and all rounded out by the gentler joys and mysteries of parenthood. This perspective is welcome to an America which seems to popularly view its rural residents as ig'nant hayseeds, at least when you turn on the TV.
And of course, the titular Tom. Hopefully every reader has a memory of someone like him in life - a grandfather, an older neighbor, or anyone who knew how to time ignition by hand, make whiskey, or fabricate machine parts. Readers who don't will feel all the richer for the introduction to the real thing. He offers a living example of an upright character who makes a good life by thinking and doing - the ideal American scholar (in Emerson's parlance). Tom is the intellectual ancestor of Emerson and (forgive me) Laura Ingalls Wilder. He introduces us to some of the virtues arguably lost in our interchangeable, internet-connected, WalMart throwaway culture.
Michael Perry's got a great ear for a phrase, a born storyteller's sense of timing, and the keen mind to make philosophical hay of the mundane affairs of life. Visiting Tom is the book to read for anyone who wants to learn about a life done right.
As much as I enjoy reading fiction, every once in a while a true story will come along that is better than fiction. Such is the case with "Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace" from author Michael Perry. "Visiting Tom" is a real slice of American Pie, a tart cherry pie topped with farm-fresh sweet whipped cream. Tom Hartwig and his wife of six decades, Arlene, still live in the Wisconsin farmhouse in which Tom was born. In their eighties, they are as full of spirit as they are stories, and by now, they are two halves of one person. Tom is a natural-born mechanical genius and a builder of cannons and maker of black powder to fire his homemade artillery. Visitors to the Hartwig farm are greeted by the sight of a fully functional cannon, a fact which intimidates the likes of traveling salesman and other uninvited guests. The Hartwig farm is split by a government-enforced four-lane highway, an ever-present intrusion upon daily life which the Hartwig's have endured with admirable perseverance. The author writes with humor, heart, and wryly astute observation. The affection between Perry and the Hartwigs is obvious, and while the men are quite different, they share a great bond. Observations on wives and children, the land, the government, and life in general are funny, touching, and simply profound. There are a few photos in the book, and I would have loved to see quite a few more--each picture is a story in itself. Author Michael Perry also writes articles and essays, performs as a humorist and radio host, and tours with his band, "The Long Beds".
Tom reminded me of so many of my neighbors growing up. Just a normal guy who may have some eccentricities (in Tom's case, his love of cannons), but if you listen and pay attention, you can learn so much about life. How to live it, how to appreciate it, sort through things to realize what is really important. What I love about Michael Perry's writing is that he can take an ordinary thing and make it into something absolutely beautiful, which brings out the true beauty of the situation, usually something that I've taken for granted. The book builds and ends in a crescendo that filled my eyes with tears because it was so absolutely beautiful. "Holocene" by Bon Iver is such a beautiful song that makes my soul absolutely soar. I'd crawl up into it and live in pure happiness if I could. When I saw that song performed in person, I cried througout the whole thing because the beauty of the song completely overwhelmed me. When I finished reading that section, I had to crawl out of bed, throw the cd in my stereo (I don't have an mp3 player/iPod), and listen to the song to truly capture the moment. I laid on the floor, spread eagled, and immersed myself into the beauty of the song with Perry's musings still fresh in my head. It was absolutely perfect. AND I was wearing my Packer fleece over my flannel PJs, so I think both Michael Perry and Justin Vernon would approve. I am so very happy I was able to hear Perry read from this book on my birthday. Most perfect way to spend my b-day!
I went into this book thinking it would be like a "Tuesdays with Morrie" (which I haven't read, but get the impression it's a moral tale--a heavy-handed "what we should be learning from our elders"). To my pleasant surprise, "Visiting Tom" was nothing like that. I should have known to expect better from Michael Perry. He's not one to rest on cliches or easy writing.
Perry simply visits Tom, his neighbor. You get the sense he wants to glean platitudes and wisdom from Tom, but like all salt-of-the-earth people, Tom isn't one to dispense with circular talk. This book actually isn't about Tom; it's more about Perry. Tom causes Perry to reflect on his own life as a husband and father, and as a member of a rural community. It's a book about changing landscapes, both physical and personal.
As a Midwesterner, I identified with Perry's descriptions of the land and of Tom. Tom is like every old neighbor I've ever known. I can easily hear his dialect and see the way he walks. Tom is a specific stand-in for many.
This book continues to exhibit Perry's gift for writing essay. He's the type of author that makes me wish I could write like that. I don't know anyone else who can draw out a conflict with a highway commissioner in such interesting detail and lift it to the realm of page-turning cliffhanger. If you think the small details in life don't matter, read Perry immediately. He elevates what could be the mundane to high art.
Many of these enticing and wonderfully adept stories may not be as interesting as some presented in earlier books, but plainly speaking Michael Perry in Visiting Tom has achieved his greatest and most developed work so far among what has previously been published to great acclaim. Still a bit over-sentimental for my tastes, Perry again proves his deftness on the page. Weaving true life events into a cogent semblance of purity and goodness unrivaled by anyone in letters I have thus read, Perry resorts to what is happening in his personal present and how it relates specifically to his past. Admittedly nostalgic, Perry also remains humble as he exhibits an equal measure of the grace he admires in others he meets who come across his path. I hazard a guess that Michael Perry will have plenty more to say in the coming years as he continues to tackle life head-on with honesty, kindness, humor, and a taste for the best things a full life has to offer.
Michael Perry has become my favorite modern author, not because I agree with everything he says, but because he has such a gift for transforming the prosaic into the poetic. This book beautifully and humorously captures the collision of older agrarian ways of life with the high-tech, high-speed, and sometimes high-handed forces of modernity. Take a story about an aging farmer who watches an interstate highway bisect his land and obliterate the turtle ponds of his youth, and you'd expect a real nose-blower of a tragedy, complete with mournful violins. But unlike so many writers on such topics (Wendell Berry included), Perry tells the story without weighing it all down with elegiac preachiness. Perry is a keen observer of human nature, and he has gift for capturing the close relationship between hubris, humus, and humor. I loved this book.
Another "back to the farm" book. These seem to be very popular lately. Maybe because of the Recession.
Anyway, this isn't so much a story as it is listening to a bunch of old farmers chew the fat. This story, that story, how about that one time... Blah, blah, blah. What saves it from being boring is Michael Perry's beautiful prose and the one constant storyline in the book: Michael fighting the Highway Commissioner to get his driveway widened (it was wide, but the Commissioner unilaterally decided to narrow it). This thread keeps the otherwise choppy narrative together.
It's very clear that Michael loves his wife, appreciates her, and adores his two daughters. This is very touching and beautiful.
Other than that, not much to say. There are beautiful photographs in the book.
Michael Perry writes about where the rubber of everyday life meets the road in rural Wisconsin. This book is hung on a framework of visits to a neighbor down the road, a guy named Tom, married to Arlene, coming up on his sixtieth wedding anniversary. A while back the government pushed an interstate through the front yard of their once peaceful farm and now their life is lived to the sound of eight million vehicles driving by every year. Tom builds things, parts for vehicles and tractors, and cannons, too, that he will fire off for you if he's in the mood to.
Perry admires Tom as a man, a husband, a father and a craftsman who can build from scratch everything from the aforesaid cannon to a part for a fifty-year old tractor. Perry met Tom and Arlene through his wife, Anneliese.
Very early on--perhaps the third or fourth time Anneliese and I visited the Hartwigs--Tom must have seen hearts in my eyes, because while Arlene and Anneliese were in the other room, he had a word with me. "That girl there," he said, indicating Anneliese. "You know she was on my hay crew?" "Yes, sir," I said. "Outworked any boy I ever hired," said Tom, and nothing more was said. Late, upon reflection, I realized this was intended less as a testament to Anneliese's character than as a challenge to my own.
Channeling his nascent Tom, Perry builds a sign to keep trespassers off his farm.
...[I] rummaged through the scrap lumber pile until I located two mismatched boards of sufficient length to carry the lettering. Using a jackknife-sharpened pencil, I sketched the word PRIVATE on the first board, and the word DRIVE on the second. Next I sorted through my collection of half-used cans of wasp killer and WD-40 until I found a canister of bloodred spray paint. I shook it until the rattle ball went silent, then purposely oversprayed the pencil tracings so that here and there the excess paint ran in exsanguinous streaks. Then being a stickler for detail, I fetched and loaded my Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum, leaned the boards against a box elder stump, and from a civilized ten paces, drew down the seven-inch barrel and blew six 240-grain slugs through the signage...
He puts it up at the foot of the drive, and then
I realized that for all my effort, I had fallen short by a single critical degree...I unscrewed the topmost board and returned with it to my pole barn studio. Today if you sneak down my driveway, you'll see a sign pretty much identical to the one I mounted initially--with one critical difference...The new sign--composed in the same fashion (cruddy lumber, runny red letters, and fusillade included)--reads as follows: PIRVATE DRIVE
As always in Perry's books there are throwaway lines that the afterimage of which will haunt you long afterward (and if you are a writer will make you wish you'd written that). Of a sheriff's deputy--
...was as soothing as a large man with a gun can be.
Of the new construction encroaching on the Wisconsin farmlands that nonetheless provides employment for Perry's plumber--
Somewhere along the line we're all looking for some balance that will allow us to honor the past without strangling the future.
On the use of nostalgia--
...the thing that floats over me through the stillness is this vague sense of what life can be if we just have health and solitude. And by solitude, I mean , leave each other alone. Do no harm. At the very least, stop it with all the yelling. World peace is a concept far beyond my ken, but two minutes spent on a doomed farmhouse porch is silence renews my every scorched fuse.
Visiting Tom is a portrait of a man who's time has gone but who is still here and still determined to live his life the way he has always lived it, 24/7 interstate traffic shaking his foundations or not, adapting to the future but never surrendering to it. A lesson for us all, not just Perry.
I sure do love Michael Perry's writing. But this one had a brutal streak through it—the tale of a battle with bullying bureaucracy—that made it almost too painful to read.
Tom was born the same year as my mom. They don't have much else in common, personalitywise, but a few things resonate: a life begun in the house where they still live (though Mom was away for a few decades), an education begun in a one-room schoolhouse, a work ethic that kicks mine's butt, a make-do approach to life, and a kitchen where guests have been visiting for generations. Nana used to have a little plaque or trivet or some such inscribed with the little verse "No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best." That belongs on the Hartwigs' kitchen wall, too.
Mike was born a few years before me. We don't have much in common, personalitywise, either. I got more enraged just reading about his struggles with the highway department than he seemed to get actually living them. And that was really my only problem with the book—that it made me want to punch things...and perhaps people. So high praise for the writing, marks off for leading me into temptation (however undesignedly), and I'll make it three stars.
A great story about life, real life in Wisconsin and a few of those gems that make it great. I had a tough time getting into the story at the beginning, but was glad I stayed with listening to it. The ending is well worth it.
Growing up on a farm in Minnesota made me appreciate all the nuances of Tom's character that made him great. My dad had an old Farmall tractor, which I drove at age 13 or 14 for fall haying. Michael Perry brought out the memories of farm life I forgot. I loved reading about the "normal" people doing extraordinary things by just being good neighbors and friends. Isn't this what life should be?
I would recommend!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This is an emotional book. Sometimes I could only read a little bit. Visiting Tom, seems to me, to be about life well lived. The book is not as much about Tom as it is about the author. But more, it's about an example of how to live, how to value time and experience. How to add value to time and experience. I wish I had read this book 35 years ago. :)
I had the pleasure of growing up visiting Tom with my dad, I spent many mornings and afternoons cutting firewood at Toms, having him weld or fabricate something, him firing the cannon for us and of course hearing endless stories and plenty of wisdom. It was a great read that brought back a lot of nostalgia. Michael Perry did a great job capturing and describing Tom.
I first read Perry’s “Population 485” several years ago and was quickly captivated by this author’s ability to turn a phrase. There’s something purely poetic about his writing style and when you read his books, it’s like you’ve been given a secret key to a place that provides a unique perspective on how to view life. His quiet reflections of his neighbor’s life studded by hilarious stories and quirky experiences that will make you shake your head in disbelief makes for a great summertime read.
82 year old Tom Hartwig serves as a prism through which young, 46 year old Michael Perry sees his future self. The full spectrum of Michael’s view of old Tom is vividly presented in the last 50 pages of this biographical memoir. Throughout the early chapters we see Tom and his wife Arlene as stoic and lovable icons of honest, independent, hard-working farmers. Tom’s endless yarn-spinning shines as it also does in Michael’s life as a prolific author and entertainer. Both men face and cope with the government’s eminent domain over their own private lands. This similarity, however, is not the book’s main focus. It is Michael’s fascination with Tom’s mechanical dexterity along with his strength of character. But, as the anecdotes of these qualities accumulate, so do Michael’s personal reflections. In the end, we witness Michael’s realizations about being a good father to his daughters, a more wife-centered husband and a realization that he’s becoming more like his own parents than he’d care to admit.
When Perry asks Tom if he has any regrets, Tom says, “Yeah, some.” And that’s it. Perry says that Tom lives in the ‘now and what’s next?’ Perry does too, but he also is a reflective thinker. Herein lies the subtle difference between these two men. Both Perry and Tom are farmers in varying degrees and both make their living by their own wits rather than by working for someone else. Obviously, Perry admires Tom for his practical skills and his creative improvisations with machinery. But, Perry has these same qualities only in different categories – writing and speaking. However, they are both compelling storytellers. So, the major difference between them is Perry’s self-absorbed reflections and Tom’s fixed stare on the present moment. Although, Tom will spin a yarn from his past experience for anyone within earshot. Fortunately for us, Perry accepts this difference between them. He offers no critical diversions into what Tom could have done or should have done. I’d like to believe that’s because Perry doesn’t envy Tom; he simply accepts and admires him. This stance is highlighted in the recurring government invasion events.
The Hartwig farm was bisected by U.S. government who inserted a new interstate highway (I94). Tom did all he could to divert and delay its invasion, but lost the battle. Now he and his wife simply absorb the noise and carry on with their lives. Like them, Perry’s driveway was invaded and reshaped by the county transportation powers. He fought the commissioner and board in various ways even seeking advice from Tom. But, he lost the battle. Fortunately, the county did yield up some gravel to restore the driveway’s original shape. Perry’s life has parallels to Tom’s and he relishes them. But, the nearly 40 years that separate them along with their difference in education background, reduce their parallelisms. However, it is Perry’s ability to reflect, write and publish that renders Tom and his wife Arlene into not only survivors of the slings and arrows of life but also attractive models for living the good life with no regrets. “Tom Hartwig has not only transcended the intrusion of the highway, he has transcended the intrusion of bitterness…the photo of Tom with his back to the camera. The man, the truck, the silo: That’s your story, right there in a picture. The man lost, the truck won, the silo is a battlefield monument. And yet the man marched on.”
Here, Perry’s admiration for old Tom is direct and clear. But Perry’s vision is more than direct, it diverts from these tropes of stoic loyalty into a more stark vision when he writes, “I have always defined myself and probably always will – by sense of place, in particular six square miles including my hometown of New Auburn and my parents’ farm. … But lately I’ve been second-guessing the whole idea of place. Not in a negative way, but in a ruminative way. I am lately considering the idea of attachment as a confining indulgence. Confining in that there is so much world and so little time; indulgent, in that dithering over where one might best park one’s hinder is the greatest of luxuries in light of humanity’s travails. … I can’t escape the idea that just as we’ve established all of these neighborly connections, we may be bound to sever them.” Here we see darker shades of mortality among the typically bright colors in Perry’s prism.
Finally, Perry’s more poetic visions of his surroundings appear in the last few pages where he writes about fireflies flitting around him and the stars flickering above. “A great message beams back from stars that reside in infinity and also in the smallest speck of light… The light of a firefly, the size of a teardrop.” To me this quote contains Perry’s magnetic writing quality. He captures the cosmic in the minute. Some would call it the universal in the particular, but I don’t think Perry’s horizons are that far away. He’s a local guy who sees his neighbor as a prism of radiant qualities and as a mirror for self-measurement. These will suffice for any of us.
Some of the events are mirrored to me growing up in central ND. A federal highway cutting though our land @ 250yds from the farmyard. No hunting signs showing up in the middle of nowhere, a Plymouth Fury 3 which my folks also owned. Tom and Arlene remind me of my parents who farmed side by side. Some of Perry's reflections of his kids can be filler, in my view.
Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway, andThe Road To Roughneck Grace, by Michael Perry
There’s a lot to say about this book, and I don’t think I can say it all in a blog post. First, the serendipity: some 6-7 years ago, when I was doing a lot of driving for various reasons, the missus gave me a book on CDs - Population: 485, by this same Michael Perry. Some weeks ago, a musician friend offered to introduce me to Perry (he didn’t follow up), and out of curiosity I bought this book. Only as I turned the last page did I realize this was the same Michael Perry.
Back when the CD was published, the credits had Perry thusly: “A registered nurse and former working cowboy currently...with two rural rescue services and one fire department. The current bio has him an amateur pig farmer, still a member of the same rescue services, and a contributing editor to Men’s Health.
I’m putting all this up front because the book purports to be about one Tom Hartwig and his wife, Arlene. But as is the case with memoir, the book is more about Perry - through his relationship to the Hartwigs. The story is basically this:
The Perrys and Hartwigs are neighbors in rural Wisconsin, and many years ago a highway was built through Hartwig’s property. This was in the era of massive roadbuilding in the U.S., and roadbuilding was only possible by obtaining property and rights of way through the dicey device of imminent domain, which more or less forces property owners to give up portions of their property for the greater good of things such as roads. The device’s potency has since been watered down severely as building new roads has become less critical to the nation’s functioning.
Perry empathizes with Hartwig’s long-ago trauma, and there is a current fight with the state highway folks over a bad decision on a minor road used by few people. Hartwig is of the old order - a self sufficient, individualistic farmer who is gaining in years. Perry is not of that cloth, but he has a more than grudging admiration for Tom and Arlene and the individualistic manner in which they’ve lived their lives. The central metaphor in Perry’s tale here is a cannon Tom has built and occasionally fires. The piece of artillery is similar to Civil War weaponry, which is seen to have nostalgic value to Tom and Perry. Too, Tom has made the dad-gummed thing himself, and the simulated cannonballs and powder. Yankee ingenuity - the centerpiece of this country for more than 200 years. Ah, if we could only find a way to be so individualistic these days, Perry seems to lament.
But, Perry notices, Tom has changed. He still begrudges the road, but he’s able to adapt to such upsets in his life. And so Perry realizes that despite his own desire to look longingly over his shoulder at the past, he must overcome upsets, too, and move on. As we writes in the final pages:
“This is the universe suggesting that it is quite capable of absorbing my wobbles, and that if need be, it can spare the bulk of an entire galaxy to do the job.”
As you notice, this post is more of an essay inspired by reading Perry’s book, and not a book review, and that’s a testament to the thoughts and emotions this book conjures in me. I’m not cut from the same cloth as Perry, who sees the past here through a romanticist’s eyes, although my Southern heritage sometimes demands in a very loud voice that I pay homage to the past. My impulse is to look forward, however, and do whatever I might to prepare for a future I have no way of divining. Still, Perry and I both know that the present is where the action is, the only time, the only state of mind that matters.
My rating: 18 of 20 stars
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I first encountered Michael Perry’s work sometime in 2009 when I picked up Population: 485 from a “new paperbacks” table at Barnes and Nobel (this was before most of my reading shifted to Kindle). For some reason I didn’t read it until February, 2010, but I loved it to bits. He’s got that truly American writing style that is shared by Stephen King (except Perry’s books never include killer clowns or radioactive spaceships, though one did involve a pig being butchered), and Garrisson Keillor. You can hear echoes of Twain and Hemingway in his prose, as well, but I digress.
When, earlier this summer, the lovely folks at TLC Book Tours offered me a copy of the newly released PAPERBACK version of Perry’s latest offering, in exchange for an honest review, I didn’t hesitate: I said YES.
Michael Perry’s book Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace arrived at my door a couple of weeks later, and I chose to savor it, rather than devouring it in a matter of hours in my typical fashion.
I’m glad I made that choice, because reading Perry’s book, about a series of visits with an older neighbor who shares shopwork expertise, life experiences that cannot be matched, and a fetish for vintage artillery (i.e. canons), is a book meant to slow us down for a while. It’s the literary equivalent of staying seated at the kitchen table, talking and laughing, long after the meal has been finished, and the coffee has gone cold.
Like so much of Perry’s work, Visiting Tom tells two stories. The first, most obvious one, is that of Tom Hartwig, who has spent his entire 80-plus years in the same community – the same farm – the same HOUSE, even – in rural Wisconsin.
But the second story is Perry’s own, the one in which his farming is something he dabbles at along side his real job (writing and making music), and his relationship with his daughters and wife provides him another set of mirrors into the world.
This book, like all of Perry’s work, is – by turns, funny, sweet, alarming, and poignant. It’s that poignance that affected me most, because my husband’s family also hails from rural farming country, and in Tom, and in his story, I see, not only bits of my father-in-law, but also the very real truth: that family farms are disappearing, that most rural kids grow up and leave the farm (neither my husband nor his two siblings stayed in a rural environment, or, indeed, a related career, choosing instead to work with computers, or, in the case of my sister-in-law, to teach in public schools.)
But I’m digressing again.
Perry’s words let us feel as if we, too, have visited, not just with Tom and his wife and their dog, but with Michael Perry and his family as well.
And really, that’s how the best books SHOULD feel.
Goes well with: A glass of fresh milk and a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.
I really enjoyed reading "Visiting Tom" by Michael Perry. It brought back many memories of my childhood and visiting my aunts and uncles. This book is set in rural Wisconsin but it turns out that it is not different from where my relatives lived in Indiana. With his broad knowledge of mechanics, gardening and history, he reminds me of my favorite aunt! It is difficult in this review to sift out my own memories because there are so many similarities.
Tom Hartwig, an octogenarian, now widowed and a grandparent has a great sense of humor that kind of jumps up and surprises you! His grandfather had bought the land that Tom was living on. Memories of the past are seeded through this book but Tom was not living in the past. He comes from the area, with a strong appreciation of nature and a love of learning. The seedlings of Tom's and Michael Perry's experiences pop up and bring back so many of your own when you read "Visiting Tom".
Back on November 9, 1967 the Interstate opened through his farm. The first plans were to have it go through his barn but Tom was able to talk them out of it. That is not the only odd thing about his land; he has cannons positioned so that he can shoot them whenever he gets inspired by his history books. He does have permission from the authorities to do so.
Tom is the author's neighbor, and the author's family stories mingle in with Tom's. There are many stories of what he and his daughters did together. Also stories of the terrible hill near his property that caused so many over time slide off the road. So many that he keep a list of the people by name that didn't make it.
Packed in with the other stores are tales of one particularly bad blizzard. Since I have been in a terrible one in Indiana, I checked out his description and it was same as mine in Indiana. For one thing, the snow went horizontal in stripes he called it. I thought it was like snow going through plastic tubes. I think you have to be in a blizzard to describe. I know this review is very rambling but that is how this book is, like going down a country road and making all sorts of discoveries.
I highly recommend "Visiting Tom" for anyone who has lived or visited the country and like to read about the past and learning the wisdom of their elders.
I received this book as a part of the Amazon Vine program but that in no way influenced my review.
Love Michael Perry's writing style. He has the ability to combine descriptive prose, musings, and humor. The result is an eminently relatable and readable book about everyday life and ordinary people. I appreciate reading about places I know, so that adds another layer to my enjoyment.
Visiting Tom, Michael Perry's latest memoir, gives readers another view into Perry's rural farm life in Wisconsin. Perry was a bachelor into his forties, when he met and married Anneliese. Anneliese had a daughter and they soon had another daughter together. They have lived on a farm for the past five years surrounded by chickens and pigs, performing the familiar chores that have sustained farmers and their families for generations. Perry was trained as a nurse, and still goes on EMT runs and works with the firefighters. He is also often on the road, lecturing about his life and the glories of family and farm life. But his life and his love is his family and the land they occupy and which sustains them.
This book is organized around two themes. The main theme is Perry's neighbor, Tom, an octogenarian who farms, welds, keeps bees and in general is one of the handiest men Perry knows. He and his wife spend a lot of time with Tom and his wife Arlene, soaking up their wisdom and the stories of their life.
The second theme is Perry's ongoing argument with the local road commissioners, who after years have decided to make a road change. While it makes an intersection safer according to regulations, it makes the trip up the hill to the Perry farm difficult and sometimes impossible in the winter. Perry spends over a year protesting the decision and its effects.
Those readers who have encountered Perry below will sink into this book as into a warm comfortable, familiar bed; full of comfort and good cheer. Those new to his work have a real treat in store as they read of a family that dares to slow down and value the way things used to be, when a family depended on each other and the neighbors that surrounded them. It is a quintessential feel-good book and readers will enjoy their time visiting with the Perry family.
I live in Wisconsin and so does Michael Perry. So what's not to like? I read most of his books and heard his presentations a few times. This winter he will be here performing at the Grand Opera House and, of course, I already have tickets to that. In this book he writes about his 80-year-old neighbor Tom who, along with his wife and farm, have weathered the construction of an Interstate through his farm. He's mellowed out now and reminisces about his years there. Also, Tom is a machinist who builds his own machines that function as lathes, sawmill, and other large implements. Perry also describes his "battle" with the county highway commissioner over a change in a rural road that, according to Perry, makes the road and its intersection more dangerous. Love his stuff!