Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace

Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace

4.4 9
by Michael Perry
     
 

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What can we learn about life, love, and artillery from an eighty-two-year-old man whose favorite hobby is firing his homemade cannons? Visit by visit—often with his young daughters in tow—author Michael Perry is about to find out.

Toiling in a shop Perry describes as "an antique store stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged

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Overview

What can we learn about life, love, and artillery from an eighty-two-year-old man whose favorite hobby is firing his homemade cannons? Visit by visit—often with his young daughters in tow—author Michael Perry is about to find out.

Toiling in a shop Perry describes as "an antique store stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged by a small earthquake," Tom Hartwig makes gag shovel handles, parts for quarter-million-dollar farm equipment, and—now and then—batches of potentially "extralegal" explosives. As he approaches his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife, Arlene, Tom, famous for driving a team of oxen in local parades, has an endless reservoir of stories dating back to days of his prize Model A, and an anti-authoritarian streak refreshed daily by the four-lane interstate that was shoved through his front yard in 1965 and now dumps over 8 million vehicles past his kitchen window every year. And yet Visiting Tom is dominated by the elderly man's equanimity and ultimately—when he and Perry converse over the kitchen table as husbands and as the fathers of daughters—unvarnished tenderness.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tom is 82-year-old Tom Hartwig, who lives in a classic twin-porched Wisconsin clapboard farmhouse down the road from Perry, his wife and daughters. As Perry puts it, “We live on a farm, but I am not a farmer.” Instead, he plays music with his band, delivers lectures, and from his office over the garage he turns out magazine articles and books. He first wrote about his Wisconsin neighbors in Population: 485 and traveled back roads in Truck before covering rural rituals in Coop. In this outing, the rustic images of Wisconsin photographers John Shimon and Julie Lindemann serve as chapter intros and fuse with the text. A photo of a dust-covered cannon in Hartwig’s cluttered workshop leads into Tom’s account of making the cannon. Every object has a story, from lathe to sawmill: “This is the most complicated thing I ever built, he says, hands on his hips as he stares at the sawmill.... There’s over a hunnerd pounds’ a welding rods in that thing.” Perry hopes his daughters will see the historical implications and “all the wisdom and history” in Tom’s stories. Blending his own autobiography into Tom’s profile, Perry plunges into the soul of the American heartland. While Foxfire fans will relish the emphasis on forgotten crafts and tools, others will appreciate Perry’s gift as a bucolic wordsmith, etching a sensitive portrait of vanishing country life where “the light of a firefly is the size of a teardrop.” (Sept.)
Library Journal
Award-winning author Perry, an NPR contributor, recently returned home to a 37-acre farm in New Auburn, WI (see his Population: 485). There, he's neighbors with octogenarian Tom Hartwig, who runs a shop seemingly "stocked by Rube Goldberg" and defies the four-lane interstate that was shoved through his front yard a few decades back. A portrait of an individual and a place; look for a big driving tour in the heartland.
Kirkus Reviews
The warmhearted account of a middle-aged man's friendship with an eccentric octogenarian neighbor. When Men's Health contributing editor Perry (Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, 2009, etc.) met Tom Hartwig, he had no idea that this man with the "brushy shock of hair, the fatless cheeks, the deep-seamed skin and the nose like a flint broadhead" would one day become an important part of his life. A farmer who loved tinkering in a home workshop that looked like it was "stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged by a small earthquake," Tom had a special fondness for assembling, and firing, vintage Civil War canons. Perry did not consciously go to Tom "seeking" anything beyond repairs for small pieces of equipment or the occasional get-together, yet he still found himself quietly inspired by Tom's feistiness and wisdom. The older man's unwillingness to surrender his dignity in the face of an interstate construction project that cut through his farm gave Perry the courage to fight a county-highway-commission project to reconfigure an intersection near his own house. The almost-60-year relationship Tom had with his wife, Arlene, offered a model of enduring domestic success that Perry also admired. Musing on his own comparatively brief marriage, the author observes somewhat wryly, "[f]amiliarity is no excuse for lowering your standards." But perhaps most importantly of all, the couple provided both Perry and his family a link to the past and a feeling of generational continuity rare in an otherwise disconnected modern age. Perry's portrayal of Tom and his life are both engaging, although the meandering nature of the narrative can be frustrating. Nevertheless, the moments of genuine emotion make up for its slow pace. Flawed, but down-to-earth and genuine.
Wall Street Journal
“The portrait Mr. Perry paints...is of a place and a life that is worth noting….His writing is beautiful and immediate and elegant.”
Booklist
“Charming and humorous.”
Capital Times
Visiting Tom is more than just a whimsical portrait of a unique character. It’s a meditation on modernity and self-reliance that sneaks up on you with its unexpected depth.”
New York Journal of Books
“Drop whatever you are doing and sit down to read Michael Perry’s Visiting Tom….Perry is a craftsman of the highest order….When you go back to doing what you were doing when you picked up this book, you might just see your world with a broader, more humane perspective.”
Express Milwaukee
“In Visiting Tom, a story that melds Perry’s unique humor with notes of Garrison Keillor and Billy Bryson, the elderly man’s tenderness and character jump off the page as he shares his thoughts on life and love.”
MinnPost
“Funnier than Keillor.”
Experience Wisconsin Magazine
“Michael Perry writes the words that create the memoirs that make so many of us want to raise chickens and pigs, plant a few rows of corn or otherwise just make hay. Mostly, though, he makes us want to get to know our neighbors better - no matter where we live.”
Journal Sentinel
“[Perry] is a sharp and empathetic observer.”
Daily Sparks Tribune
“It’s part memoir, part character piece. There’s a bit of the poetic to it. It’s about fighting bureaucracy, Foxfire-ish self-sustenance, life the ‘old timer’s’ way, and male-bonding foolishness. It’s about fatherhood, marriage and love. And it’s just about one of the sweetest books you’ll ever read.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061894442
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
08/21/2012
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
1,246,956
Product dimensions:
5.42(w) x 7.42(h) x 1.04(d)

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Meet the Author

Michael Perry has written for numerous publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and the Utne Reader. A contributing editor to Men's Health, he lives in northern Wisconsin with his family.

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