By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir

By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir

by Joe Blair


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This vivid memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life is “so raw and true you’ll gasp” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

Heralding the arrival of an original American voice, By the Iowa Sea is a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life.

After his first cross-country motorcycle trip, Joe Blair believed he had discovered his calling: he would travel; he would never cave in to convention; he would never settle down. Fifteen years later, he finds himself living in Iowa, working as an air-conditioning repairman and spending his free time cleaning gutters, taxiing his children, and contemplating marital infidelity. When the Iowa River floods, transforming the familiar streets of his small town into a terrible and beautiful sea, Joe begins to question the path that led him to this place.

Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451636062
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 03/05/2013
Pages: 277
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joe Blair is a pipefitter who lives in Coralville, Iowa, with his wife and four children. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Iowa Review.

Read an Excerpt

By the Iowa Sea
IT BEGINS WITH RAIN. An innocent enough thing. Rain and rain and rain. Day after day of it. Through February and March and April and May. Forcing us to seek out shelters that will soon, in some cases, be transformed into pontoon boats. While the rain beats down on the roofs of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and Marengo and Oxford Junction like bouncing hammers, the unstoppable thing is happening. The rivers rise up out of their banks, lifting our neat little split-entry lives from their foundations, tearing away electrical hookups and gas hookups and phone lines, bringing us to a place where there are no riverbanks and no street names and nothing else that resembles a city. The rivers will become oceans. And Deb and I will become not lost in the oceans but a part of them: suddenly vast. Subordinate to none. Scooping and hungry.

The wind comes unevenly in cold down-rushes and everyone at the Coral Ridge Mall knows that something unusual is about to happen. If the raindrops were chickens or pancakes, I don’t think we would be surprised. Because anything is possible. The small trees outside Barnes & Noble are showing the undersides of their leaves, their branches confused as to which way to go, pushing downward and then upward and then twisting clockwise. People are gathered in the very place the voice on the intercom tells us not to gather: in front of the large plate-glass windows. We can see everything from here. The crosswalk sign bending sideways. The racing clouds. But it isn’t enough for me. I want to be in the storm. I want to smell it and hear the wind and feel the first enormous raindrops hit my skin. I’m hungry for that.

I push through the heavy doors and wait outside the entrance. The storm excites me. It excites us all. Even though we have worried expressions on our faces, we don’t move from the windows. Because we want the change to come. We all want it. We are on our phones to wives or husbands or children. “Are you in the basement?” “Stay inside!” “Stay away from the windows!” These are the things we say. The sky looks the way ocean waves must look from the bottom of the sea. We are starfish looking up at the waves. And it intrigues us that there is such power in the world. Power enough to twist trees like corkscrews. To rip us all up by the roots.

A blast of wind staggers me. I catch myself from falling by grabbing the crosswalk sign, itself less than stable, oscillating wildly on its channeled steel post. One drop, the size of my hand, in the middle of the crosswalk. Another drop somewhere on the sidewalk. Then hundreds of drops all at once. Then thousands. Falling hard. Drawn to the ground as if by magnetic force. I step back beneath the entrance, afraid. The hunched figure of a woman rushes through one of the double doors clutching a paper bag to her chest and holding one hand over her head, as if to keep her wig on. “Smells like rain!” she shouts over the sound of the mad charge of water from the sky as she bustles past me into the storm. I smile. I take a deep breath. And then I laugh. Because she’s right. It does smell like rain.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Blair put away his motorcycle and his dreams to do manual labor while supporting four children, one of whom is autistic. Rekindling a sense of purpose took something big: a terrible flood. Not a whiny work; fresh, plain-spoken, and down to earth. Definitely try."

—Library Journal

“A devastating flood provides the backdrop for Joe Blair's moving memoir about crisis and change. If you want to understand how a good man can resolve the conflict between his youthful dreams and his adult sense of duty, read this book. His honesty about the real challenges of marriage and parenting is startling in the best sense, and shot through with refreshing humor.”

—Julie Metz, author of The New York Times bestselling memoir, Perfection

“Joe Blair's passion and courage are evident on each page of By the Iowa Sea. He is among those rare writers brave enough to risk everything for his work and the result is this hypnotic, electrifying book.”

—Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing

“Blair’s thoughtful memoir displays the strengths and resilience of committed lovers in a tumultuous relationship.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Joe Blair’s voice is uncommonly perceptive, startlingly honest, and powerfully moving. This is eloquence born of pain, sharpened by humor, and burnished, finally, by understanding and redemption.”

—Ethan Canin, author of Emperor of the Air and America, America

“By the Iowa Sea is a sometimes angry, often startling, and always riveting journey through infidelity, drinking, storms, work, beauty, and the simultaneous frustration and sublimity of raising a disabled child. Blair's writing is vivid, his subjects are heartbreaking, and his ending is flat-out gorgeous.”

—Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for By the Iowa Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joe Blair. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In a candid memoir about his struggle to be a loving husband and father, Joe Blair lays bare his dreams and the stuff they’re made of. A member of the plumber and pipefitter union who also earned a masters in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, Joe documents his home struggles—a failing marriage, a special needs child, a natural disaster, and a yearning for something new—in his debut memoir, By the Iowa Sea. With a genuine narrative voice and an unflinching honesty, Blair documents his journey towards living an authentic life, and the challenges great and small he faces along the way.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Does a place define a family? Discuss the ways in which Joe and Deb give weight to the notion of “home.” Consider their first house in Iowa,their youthful motorcycle trip across the US, and their ultimate move back to Massachusetts.

2. Why do you think Joe was attracted to Pamela? What about her differs from Deb? Do Joe and Pamela just connect over their shared love of writing, or was there something deeper about her being a change from Deb and life at home with the kids? Also, what do you think motivates Joe giving up his affair and attempting to reconcile with Deb?

3. How does the significance of the flood change Joe’s perspective? Do you think he finds some personal catharsis in seeing solid places wash away? Why is he so attracted to the deteriorated houses on the beaches of Plum Island?

4. Joe contemplates the notion that all things will be “washed away by time.” Do you agree? Is there permanence to notions of love, family, or home? How has Joe’s view on this changed by the memoir’s end?

5. How does the backdrop of the flooding Iowa River affect the smaller disasters in Joe’s life? Discuss how this force of nature plays into Joe’s troubles in Iowa. Does the flood also help him somehow?

6. On page 235, Joe writes: “Love can be an extraordinary patience. Love can also be an extraordinary impatience.” What do you think Joe means by this? Do you think love can truly be defined as both?

7. Consider Michael’s autism and the way it affects Joe’s life and marriage. Reflect on Joe’s descriptions of being both awed frustrated by his son. How did you react to Joe’s struggle with raising Michael? Do you understand his actions and feelings? Why or why not? Do you think Michael’s return to playing with the belt in Massachusetts nullify Deb’s assessment that he’s done better since the move?

8. In reference to Isaac Newton’s supposed celibacy, Joe suggests that “what a man refrains from defines him perhaps more completely than what he accomplishes.” Do you agree? From what has Joe refrained, and what has he accomplished?

9. Discuss the games Joe plays with his children: the blinking game with Michael, the disintegrating man with William and Sam, the imaginary personas he, Deb, and the kids take on in the woods. How do these small moments of play reflect on Joe’s role as a father? What do these games mean to him?

10. What do you foresee being Joe’s greatest challenges in Massachusetts?

11. Consider the clarity Joe experiences when sandbagging. What is it about a simple, redundant process that leads to such self-understanding? How can this notion be applied to his family life?

12. In the same vein, was all that work for naught? As the river waters spread through town, was the communal process of sandbagging a failure? Is there a point to such simple actions when disaster strikes regardless? How do you justify catastrophe even when you’ve done all you can to avoid it?

13. Is it the individual moments or the final outcome that defines a life? Explain.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Make a list of the romantic notions you maintained as a child. How did those ideas change as you grew up? Did your life turn out more or less as you planned? Discuss any disasters that might have forced you to change course or reevaluate everything you’d worked for. What are the key moments of your life and love?

2. Read another memoir, such as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Alex Lemon’s Happy, Abby Sher’s Amen, Amen, Amen, or Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers. Compare and contrast the voice from one memoir to the next. Do they all contain the same amount of honesty and insight? Does a disaster—natural or otherwise—always inform a life and the reflection thereof?

3. Devise a game similar to the ones Joe plays with his kids to play with your book club members. Is there utility in pretending? Are the silly moments created just as important as the ones with more weight?

4. Visit someplace new, a good distance from your home. Can you see yourself relocating to this locale? List and discuss the ways in which a move might change your life as it stands today. Is your city, your street, your house an integral part of your identity? Discuss with your book club.


A Conversation with Joe Blair
How did you come up with the title, By the Iowa Sea?
It took me two years to write the book. And then another two years to write the title. I’d come up with a title and love it for a day, and then hate it exuberantly thereafter. I can’t tell you how many titles this book had. I tried cute titles: My Darling Flood. I tried biblical titles: Vanity of Vanities. Ironic titles:Beautiful Disaster. Simple, Cormac McCarthyesqe titles: The Flood. I tried paging through the book and looking for a collection of words that sounded cool together, but I couldn’t find any. I recalled a friend of mine who, about ten years ago, threw a title party. She invited a bunch of friends over and the whole aim of the party was to come up with at title for her book. Of course it didn’t work. We spent the time getting drunk. In regard to my title, I was lost. I wanted someone else to simply name my book for me. Just like my wife named our kids. Couldn’t editors name books? Wasn’t that the sort of thing they did?
One morning, I was lying in bed trying to put off the inevitable throwing off of the blankets and I was thinking about the Salton Sea. Ever since I saw the John Waters documentary on that forsaken body of water, I’d been obsessed with it. If only, I thought, I could entitle my book, The Salton Sea. That would be awesome. Unfortunately, my book had nothing to do with the Salton Sea. It had to do with a sea in Iowa that had been created when the Iowa River flooded in the spring of 2008. And of course there were the metaphorical floods. (Flood of passion. Joy. You name it.) And the metaphorical seas. (Sea of heartbreak. Lost love. Loneliness.) And I thought, how about By the Iowa Sea? I could call it that! I pictured a beautiful woman in an old fashioned bikini sitting under a sun umbrella on the edge of a raging, threatening body of water. I loved By the Iowa Sea. I loved it so much, I sent it to my editor immediately. Then, the next day, right on schedule, I hated the title exuberantly. But it was too late. My editor was running with it.
What set you on the path to publish your writing?
At the time of the flood, I was writing every day in that doomed way unpublished authors do. I punished my keyboard every morning in a coffee shop called Terrapin, which was run by two insane Italian brothers who talked too loudly but didn’t seem to mind me clogging up one of their tables for hours at a time. The same people were always there. The smiley woman who would read the book of Psalms in her window seat. The old guys who would do their crosswords while sitting around the table by the gas fireplace. They’d do the Times first and then work their way downhill to the Des Moines Register. I sat near them, maybe so I could pretend to be a part of their daily successes. They’d always ask me questions. Usually about sports. Sometimes about books or movies or geography. And I’d almost never know the answer.
One day, when the lens of the nation was focused on the Iowa floods, I got a call from The New York Times. A friend of mine, a well-known author whom they had already approached, had given them my number, telling them I might be able to lend my “blue collar perspective” to the tragedy. The woman from the Timeswanted something for the op-ed, a “letter,” they called it “From the Flood Plain.” Was I interested? Um…yes. I was. Could I have something for them tomorrow? Sure. I didn’t see why not. “We’re not saying we’re going to publish it,” she warned me. “But we’ll take a look tomorrow and see.” That evening, after work, I drove down to the coffee shop and tried to write something poignant about the flood, but the place was too quiet. The crazy brothers weren’t there. Neither was the smiley Bible woman, nor the old crossword guys. After an hour of flailing failure, I returned home. This, I supposed, was what separated published writers from unpublished writers like myself. Published writers could write. I didn’t sleep much, having missed my big chance. Next morning, I drove to the coffee shop. Said hello to the crazy brothers. Said hello to the smiley Bible woman. Said hello to the old crossword guys. And wrote a short essay about our failed sandbagging efforts on Normandy Drive, where I had lived for seven years. The Times ran the piece the following day. A few weeks later, they sent me a check for three hundred dollars. I don’t know what I spent it on.
Tell us about the process of writing By the Iowa Sea—do you keep a journal? Do you write every day? How did you try to stay true to your memory of the events in the book?
Deb and I had been arguing quite a bit. We were very dramatic. And it always drove me crazy when she’d say something during an argument and then, just minutes later, deny having said it. It also drove me crazy the way, during a fight, we’d both simply repeat our sides of the same argument over and over again without ever resolving anything. I began transcribing our arguments because whipping out a tape recorder seemed crass. Minutes after an argument would end, I’d rush to the basement and scribble down what we each said, at least the way I recalled it. Then, in an act of…I guess you could call it “hubris” or “stupidity” or “vanity”…I’d read the argument back to my wife. I learned that this was not the way to go. Because a new and fiercer argument would inevitably ensue. Memory is faulty. Deb never recalls the arguments the way I do. If she were to transcribe them, I’d be the one fumbling through the crucial stages. Or saying the insensitive thing. The more I transcribed arguments, however, the more I tried, in the midst of our battles, to be fair and compassionate. Not for any moral reason, but simply to look good in the written version. This awareness, on both our parts, of the impending transcription changed the way we communicated. (In this instance, for the better.)
That’s the way with nonfiction writing. You think you’re simply recording things that happen, but your recording of events begins to change the events themselves and before you know it, you get confused as to causality. And purpose. This is the tangle you begin to recognize. The recording of events and then the drawing of conclusions from these recordings of events (AKA “essay writing”) is a real drag for the people I come in contact with. There are dozens of instances, in the recent past, when Deb has turned to me (in the car, in bed, at a restaurant) and said, “You will not use this in one of your essays.” To her, if I were to consider the following essay, I might say, “Of course, sweetheart. I would never do that to you.” But, in the interest of the truth, I have to tell you this would be a lie.
Why did you write By the Iowa Sea? Did you set out to achieve something specific?
Well, I’ll tell you. There was no great, God-inspired reason. What happened was, Dan Jones at The Times accepted an essay I wrote for Modern Love. I had been trying to get a piece in there for over a year, and it was a big thrill for me. For one thing, I really liked the piece he was going to run. It was one of the first essays I had written which dealt with my feelings toward my son, Michael, who happens to be severely and profoundly autistic. I’d had a hard time approaching the topic on paper because it’s such a large and difficult part of our family life and I hadn’t worked out how to accept the heavy responsibility of twenty-four-hour-a-day care for him without self-pity or resentment or that ugly, narcissistic, long-suffering, heroic tone you sometimes read in parental writings on the topic of their special needs children. When I finally did begin to directly address the topic of my special needs son on paper is when I began to grow as a father and a human being in that respect. So, the essay, which The Times entitled For the Boy Who Makes Waves, was very important to me and I also thought it might be important to other fathers or mothers who had a son like my son.
After the essay was published, I heard from a few different agents and they all wanted to know what I “had.” “Well,” I said, “I have a bunch of essays. In fact, I have hundreds of them.” But the agents didn’t much care about essays. They wanted a book. Which, by the way, is much longer than an essay. I realized, with a hint of panic, that what I needed to do, if I ever wanted to be an actual honest-to-God author, was come up with some idea for a book. The straws I snatched at immediately were the two essays of mine that had seen the light of day: the flood piece, and the Michael piece. There was also another line I had been pursuing in my essays, regarding my marriage, which had recently gone through a stern test. I had already written, dozens (maybe hundreds) of essays on these three topics, all of which were firWho have you discovered lately?
Most recently, I read the terrific book You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. When I discovered that this book was based on Camus’ The Stranger, I drove to the bookstore to buy a copy. I had read Camus before, but I was only a kid, and all I could remember was the voice of the narrator, which was limber and verbose and chilling. I remembered, in particular, the narrator addressing his listener, some guy in a bar, and mentioning something about the subjunctive mood. This bothered me when I was a kid because I didn’t know what the subjunctive mood was. When I arrived at the bookstore a few days ago, I discovered they were out of The Stranger, so I bought The Fall instead. I just finished it. I’m thunderstruck. Truth be told, I feel as though I have just fallen in person / present tense, when I began to piece together a single, cohesive, and (I hoped) compelling story at the center of what I came (eventually) to call By the Iowa Sea.

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