Perry (Population: 485) is that nowadays rare memoirist whose eccentric upbringing inspires him to humor and sympathetic insight instead of trauma mongering and self-pity. His latest essays chronicle a year on 37 acres of land with his wife, daughters and titular menagerie of livestock (who are fascinating, exasperating personalities in their own right). But these luminous pieces meander back to his childhood on the hardscrabble Wisconsin dairy farm where his parents, members of a tiny fundamentalist Christian sect, raised him and dozens of siblings and foster-siblings, many of them disabled. Perry’s latter-day story is a lifestyle-farming comedy, as he juggles freelance writing assignments with the feedings, chores and construction projects that he hopes will lend him some mud-spattered authenticity. Woven through are tender, uncloying recollections of the homespun virtues of his family and community, from which sprout lessons on the labors and rewards of nurturance (and the occasional need to slaughter what you’ve nurtured). Perry writes vividly about rural life; peck at any sentence-“One of the [chickens] stretches, one leg and one wing back in the manner of a ballet dancer warming up before the barre”-and you’ll find a poetic evocation of barnyard grace.
“COOP made me want to 1. Get chickens immediately, 2. Always eat popcorn on Sundays with a lot of people who love each other and also love popcorn, 3. Birth a baby into a blue tub full of water, and the easy part, 4. Treasure the Wisconsin writer who is funny and lyrical and wise and tender, and sometimes all at once.”
– Jane Hamilton, author of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece and A Map of the World
The author takes up farming and gathers memories after moving to a Wisconsin homestead with his wife and daughter. Though he grew up on a farm, Men’s Health contributing editor Perry (Truck, 2006, etc.) doesn’t pretend to be a son of the soil. He lives mostly in his head and through his eyes. His tasks around the farm are discreet enthusiasms and bemusements rather than vexing chores. He also has a complete set of anxieties, from his wife wanting a home birth for their impending child to making sure he doesn’t deglove his hand-that is, remove all the tissue so that only the bones remain-in a whirling piece of machinery. At the beginning of this memoir, after gently reflecting on a slice of his past, Perry writes, “It would be sweet to noodle along in this minor key, but I’m stopping now”-then he noodles right on. He notes with affection that his wife can blow her nose without the aid of a hanky (“now there is a woman who can endure”), grimly ponders the axe-blow-to-BTU ratio of his woodcutting, experiences the winter night’s air as “tin-pail cold against my nose” and stands rapt with his six-year-old daughter as their dog eats a dead rabbit. (He later has the bright idea of feeding some dead rabbits to his pigs.) He frequently thinks back on his farm childhood, marveling at how his devoutly religious parents made ends meet as they welcomed dozens of abandoned, mistreated or otherwise lost children into their home. Because Perry is an adept storyteller, he balances the sweeter sections with passages evoking the sting of loss and grief-not unduly, but enough to recall the impermanence of life and the swiftness of its transformations. Dryly humorous, mildly neurotic and just plain soulful-abook that might even make you want to buy a few chickens.
“You can read Michael Perry’s Coop as an outrageously funny comedy about a semi-hapless neophyte navigating the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of the farming life. Please do, in fact. But scratch a little deeper, past Perry’s lusciously entertaining and epigrammatic prose, his ultra-charming combo of Midwestern earnestness and serrated wit, and you’ll find a reflective, sincere, and surprisingly touching—at times, even heart-cracking—story about a man struggling to put down roots.”
– Jonathan Miles, author of Dear American Airlines
Perry appears to be writing his autobiography on the installment plan. In Population: 485 (2002), he describes his experiences as a volunteer EMT in his Wisconsin home town. In Truck: A Love Story (2006), he chronicles his twin love affairs—with a fixer-upper truck and a woman. Now happily married, with a stepdaughter and a baby on the way, he’s taking up residence in a Wisconsin farmhouse, where he and his wife intend to live frugally, peacefully, and—this might be the hard part—self-sufficiently. It’s a bit of a culture shock, suddenly being thrust into the living-off-the-land milieu, but Perry draws on his childhood for inspiration: he grew up on a farm, watching his own father, a man of the city, learn to be a farmer. Coop (the title refers to the author’s dream project, a chicken coop he builds with his own hands) is typical Perry: written in an easygoing, talk-to-the-reader style, with a self-effacing sense of humor and an ability to conjure up vivid mental pictures with a few well-chosen words.
— David Pitt
“I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a book about country living as much as Mike Perry’s COOP. As an adventure narrative, Perry’s details of rural life are much more telling and authentic than any how-to book. But COOP will also appeal to anyone who enjoys good writing. There is a literary gem on nearly every page.”
— Gene Logsdon, author of The Contrary Farmer