Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

by Michael Perry

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Whether he's fighting fires, passing a kidney stone, hammering down I-80 in an 18-wheeler, or meditating on the relationship between cowboys and God, Michael Perry draws on his rural roots and footloose past to write from a perspective that merges the local with the global.

Ranging across subjects as diverse as lot lizards, Klan wizards, and small-town


Whether he's fighting fires, passing a kidney stone, hammering down I-80 in an 18-wheeler, or meditating on the relationship between cowboys and God, Michael Perry draws on his rural roots and footloose past to write from a perspective that merges the local with the global.

Ranging across subjects as diverse as lot lizards, Klan wizards, and small-town funerals, Perry's writing in this wise and witty collection of essays balances earthiness with poetry, kinetics with contemplation, and is regularly salted with his unique brand of humor.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Perry, who chronicled smalltown life in Population 451, collects some previously published essays for this countrified collection. The author likes to write about bighearted truckers, country and blues musicians, itinerant barnyard butchers and other such characters. As he puts it, "I reckon I'm a pickup-truck-coveting blue-collar capitalist"; a guy who "wouldn't know tapis vert from Diet Squirt." But the wholesome subject of America's heartland doesn't jibe with Perry's sometimes crotchety attitude. He writes of being annoyed when he's cut off in traffic by someone driving "one of those yappy little four-wheel drive pickups" sporting a "No Fear" decal. What would that guy know about fear, he wonders? The incident prompts Perry to recall a sugarcane hauler he met while hitchhiking in Belize, a man whose situation-he was poor and held a dangerous job-made him, Perry assumes, intimately acquainted with fear. The book brims with alternately thought-provoking and pointless ramblings like these, as Perry visits the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington with 270,000 motorcycle-riding war veterans, stays at a hotel in Belize City and overhears a prostitute in the room next to his, and experiences other adventures. Generally, however, Perry's hit-or-miss writing combined with his "been-there-done-that" attitude ("I've seen a bunch of territory with my backpack right behind me. Fifteen or sixteen countries, something like that") make for a wearisome reading experience. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Perry has been a farmer, registered nurse, firefighter, cowboy, backpacker, and reporter. In a somewhat laconic, thoroughly enjoyable style, he introduces folks he has met on his journeys. The 33 solid essays, written over the past 10 years, convey the wonder of the seemingly ordinary. Whether riding along on the back of a Harley for a firsthand look at Rolling Thunder's annual tribute to soldiers who gave their life in Vietnam or contemplating the ways that Elvis has permeated the lives of people born after his death, Perry shows that everyone has a story. "Convoy" gives a passenger's-eye view of life as a trucker and paints a compelling picture of how American consumerism is tied to the 3.1 million or so truckers on the road. "Fear This" is the author's response to the arrogance of a nation that prides itself on "No Fear" slogans when it has not had to experience all that there is to fear in this world (written in 1997, the piece is even more meaningful after 9/11). The one flaw in the book is the paucity of recent pieces-only 10 were written since 2001. Perry shows such an uncommon mix of wisdom and humor that one feels a little cheated not to have been given a glimpse into more of his thoughts on the state of the world today. Reluctant readers will appreciate the scope Perry covers in only a few pages, and avid readers will enjoy getting to know him and a few of his friends.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Library System, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thirty-three previously published essays ruminating on the author's childhood and painting word portraits of unique people he's met. Some of the pieces appeared in the two collections Perry self-published before HarperCollins released his memoir of life as a volunteer fireman in his Wisconsin hometown (Population 485, 2002); others appeared in various, generally very-small-circulation periodicals. They deserve wider release: Perry has a real talent for mining quirky humor from even the most mundane situations, and humor isn't his only strength. He may write about Mrs. Oregon's eyebrows looking as if they'd been applied with motor oil, but he also poignantly depicts such memorable figures as Mack Most, a meat-market worker whose six-year-old daughter experiences kidney failure. Perry's description of the grinning slaughterhouse veteran, who has killed untold numbers of animals, leaves a lasting impression, as does his funny tale of dismantling Big Boy, the grinning, chubby-cheeked statue that adorned the front of many a Big Boy restaurant. This little vignette quite naturally leads to a discussion of other outsized restaurant creations, such as the 50-foot-tall Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Meanwhile, lying somewhere in tone between the gritty realism of the story on Mack Most and the shaggy-dog absurdity of the Big Boy piece is a perceptive profile of Aaron Tippin, a country singer obsessed with trucks who has quite an extensive collection of them. Aaron's recollections of how he acquired each truck are warm and funny, and Perry perfectly conveys the singer's character. A delightful mix of humor and pathos, touching the heart and tickling the funny bone.

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Read an Excerpt

Off Main Street

A Way with Wings

One summer day when I was a child, a rocket rose through the snow in Oleander Caporelli's television, headed for the moon. I have always believed Neil Armstrong was on that rocket, bound to make his giant leap for mankind -- but my little brother, who recalls the same scene, believes we saw a later mission. He was just two years old in 1969, and doubts he would remember Apollo 11. We do agree that we sat together on the Caporellis' floor and watched a launch, our heads tipped back as if we were tracking the ship itself into the stratosphere. The television sat on a shelf high above the fireplace mantel, the power cord clipped to a car battery. The Caporellis lived deep in the Wisconsin woods, in a small house without electricity. We had electricity on our farm, but no television, and so, with history in the air, Mom loaded us into the car and drove us down the snaking, dead-end dirt road that wound around the old cranberry bog, up a sharp hill, and then hairpinned back on itself in a long decline leading to the Caporelli place. For the last five hundred yards, the driveway ran parallel to a narrow cow pasture that doubled as a runway.

Crazy Joe Caporelli hung billboards for a living, but he had also trained fighter pilots in the Middle East. So the locals told it, anyway; or some said Korea, and others said he had been a test pilot, and you got to where you entertained all versions, because Crazy Joe had a way with wings. He carved us balsa wood jets the size of dragonflies. If you flung them low, they swooped high. Crazy Joe said the secret was in the tiny wire counterweight he crimped over the nose of each craft. Crazy Joe built a jet out there in the woods. I remember the tubular cowling on his garage floor, remember Crazy Joe with his goggles and gas welder. But when he bolted the engine to a hand-built fuselage, pointed the nose down his dandelion runway and throttled up, the jet wash incinerated the tail works. Later, he repaired the tail, switched the jet engine for a snowmobile engine, and got the rig airborne, but the Chippewa County jet age never took off.

Mostly Crazy Joe flew his homemade canvas two-seater. Summer evenings, our yard would go dark early, the sun blocked by the tall white pines sheltering the house and barn, but the sunlight that cleared the treetops gave everything to the east -- the oat fields, the popple trees, the fence rows -- a deep swab of color, a promise for the morning, as it were. And just when everything was glowing, there would come a buzzing from the northeast, and Crazy Joe would clear the treetops, flying through the last of the sun, his plane bright as a little red wagon against the blue sky. It was an evening ritual as common as the deer emerging in the meadows.

Some nights, after the cows were milked, and Joe had flown home, Dad took us swimming. He drove us to Fish Lake and sat on the grassy bank reading the paper. We swam and splashed until it got so dark Dad could no longer keep track of us. When he stood up, it was time to go. One day some men came to build a steel shed behind our barn. It was abominably hot, and at noon, Dad loaded the entire crew into the truck and hauled them to the lake. It was a rare treat to swim in bright sunlight. I scissor-kicked beneath the surface with my eyes wide open, trying to touch bluegills. At night, the sunfish appeared dark green, almost gray. Here at high noon, they hung in the underwater sunbeams like electrified ornaments. If you stabbed your hand out quickly, you might brush a fin before they flashed away. Given a reprieve from gravity, I hovered above the lake bed until my lungs ached for air.

Crazy Joe used to climb high in the sky over our hayfield, stall out, and then drop in a silent free fall. It put us right on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear the engine sputter and kick in. Can you imagine us, young boys in the country, playing all day, with an air show every evening? Crazy Joe used to bring his plane in low right over the garden, swoop by the house at bedroom level, dip to the clover blossoms in front of the barn, then yank back on the stick and just clear the oak trees at the end of the meadow. My brother and I would go pelting out of the house to watch. My mother had slowmotion plane crash nightmares and dreaded the day she would have to pluck Crazy Joe from the brush. Finally she forbade him to buzz the house, and he complied, but when he spotted us boys waving from the yard, he'd waggle his wings.

One night all the neighbors -- from babes in arms to the two elderly Norwegian bachelor brothers who worked the farm adjacent to ours -- queued up in a hayfield and Crazy Joe gave everyone rides. My brother and I rode together in the seat behind Crazy Joe, and I remember the homemade stick swaying and dipping at our knees, mirroring every move Joe made in the front. He flew to our farm and banked hard over the barnyard. He looked back and hollered over the engine noise. "Can you see?" My brother and I nodded. "You can't see!" he yelled, and flung open the side doors. We clamped hold of the seat but were transfixed. There was our yard, the green shingles on our red barn, Dad's aqua-blue wheelbarrow propped on its nose in the driveway; now we knew how it was to look down from the moon.

Off Main Street
. Copyright © by Michael Perry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485, as well as a novel, The Jesus Cow. He lives in northern Wisconsin with his family and can be found online at

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