Not far from nowhere: a memoir from the middle

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. Here’s a review I wrote last weekend.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI’ve never understood why summer reading is supposed to consist mainly of light, escapist fare. Isn’t summer vacation the one time when many people actually get a chance to relax and enjoy living in the moment? To my way of thinking, the perfect summer read draws you in, but doesn’t completely suck you in; is best savored in small bites slowly chewed rather than inhaled at one sitting; brings you to your senses rather than making you dead to the world. Tom Montag’s poetic memoir, Curlew: Home (Midday Moon Books, 2001) is just such a book.

Montag grew up on a rented farm “one mile south and a quarter mile west” of the town of Curlew,

dead center in the northwestern corner of Iowa. It is not far from nowhere, admittedly. When I was growing up, the town’s most remarkable feature was the short strip of pavement that constituted Main Street.

The book is not so much about Montag himself as it is about what it means to grow up in the middlewest, as he prefers to call it, raising food for people on both coasts who never give the continent’s vast midsection a second thought. It’s a kind of meta-memoir, a book about memory itself and the place of remembered landscapes in the imagination – especially urgent questions for a farm boy who, against all odds, grew up to be poet. As a fellow middlewesterner, reviewing the book for Amazon.com, notes, “Curlew, Iowa, and the Midwest become symbols of the greater reality of family, home, life, death and change. It is a book about what it means to be human.”

“Home is in your heart, you take it with you, you wear it like a stink,” Montag says. Don’t expect any weepy, County-Western-style sentimentalism here. Curlew: Home is infused with stoic melancholy, but also contains flashes of a cautious kind of joy. In this regard, as well as in its impressionistic style of composition, it reminded me strongly of old-time blues music – some talking blues epic by Leadbelly, say, where lyric alternates with narrative and the occasional shouted line.

Montag spent the month of October, 2000 traveling back to his childhood haunts, and intersperses journal-like episodes from “The Journey” with stories from his boyhood. Though not averse to drawing the occasional pithy moral, most of the time Montag wisely lets the people he interviews and the incidents he relates speak for themselves. As with blues lyrics or a Japanese linked verse sequence, a great deal of the reader’s pleasure comes from the sense of contrast and consonance between adjacent sections. (It’s interesting to see that these techniques were fully developed well before Montag began deploying them in his daily blog The Middlewesterner.)

Many of Montag’s stories glow with the light of the miraculous: the time his father witched for water, indicating not only where the well should be dug, but predicting the precise depth at which water would be found. The time Montag dreamed of having his legs run over by a tractor – and two days later having the dream come true. The time he broke his sister’s collar bone, much to their mutual surprise, or when his brother and he discovered the bitter mysteries of iced tea. Almost every character encountered in the book seems simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, from Montag’s indomitable mother and his child-prodigy sister Colleen, to Curlew’s 93-year-old mayor and the outspoken, anti-corporate female postmaster Montag interviews on his visit in 2000.

The stories are rendered especially effective by their location within an overall trajectory of loss and longing. In the narrative present we see Montag restlessly circling the now-abandoned homesite, walking the four miles around the square of grid that had included his parents’ half-section farm again and again. We feel his shock at the emptiness as he stands among the windbreak trees where their farm had been, visits graveyards, stares at vacant lots where grade schools and grain elevators had stood. Miraculous things may have happened here once, but what’s to show for it, Montag wonders.

The tradition of stereotyping country people as clowns and simpletons is as old as agriculture, as old as literature. Curlew: Home helps demonstrate the literal groundlessness of that prejudice. It takes its place in a counter-tradition questioning the civilized fantasies of detachment from the earth that stretches from the ancient Daoist classics to Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau. From an early age, Montag and his siblings, like many farm kids, learn sober lessons about violence, suffering and moral responsibility.

A series of essays in Part Three details the inevitable cruelties of farm life: “Cutting Pigs” (everything you ever wanted to know about castration, but were afraid to ask), “Butchering Chickens,” “Killing Rats,” “Killing Pigeons.” The first in the series, “Feeding the Cattle,” sets the tone. One time, Montag writes, “I was slower getting out of the way then I intended to be,” and one of his father’s prize Herefords, all 1300 pounds of it, “put its foot exactly where my foot was. The full weight of pain.”

He slams the steer as hard as he can, first with an elbow, then a shoulder, but it doesn’t move. Finally he twists its ear with all his strength, and it “bellers” and lifts its foot just enough for him to extract his own. Then he goes to work dumping the feed in the trough as usual, bucket after bucket. Afterwards, he stands watching them, “like mountains pushing and shoving.”

Off to the west the sun was dropping down behind the trees in the grove. Long shadows were spilled like paint. Wind, cool and soothing. The sound of chickens, the sound of a car along the gravel road in front of our place, the sound of one of my sisters calling out “Supper!””There has got to be more than this,” I might have said to myself. I was watching the cattle feeding dumbly and I was looking at myself. Had I been bred into a life no less predetermined than the march of those steers toward the slaughterhouse, I wondered. “There has got to be more to life than feeding cattle.”

“Hey!” I shouted at the evening sky, just for the hell of it, just because I could. The sound roared from deep within and exploded out of me. None of the cattle turned to look at me, not a one of them.

I went to my supper.

At the other end of the series, Montag tells us “Why I Don’t Hunt.” In order to fully appreciate that story – like so many others – you’ll have to read the book, and even then you may not get it the first read through, as I did not. True epiphanies are hard nuts to crack, impossible to get at without shattering the shell of words.

All my life I’ve been waiting for that pheasant’s arc of flight to be completed. All my life the bird crumples and falls to earth. What is beautiful has been broken since.