For a last-minute shopping tip, it's hard to beat a book by a little-known but talented Midwestern author, a new voice bringing to life one of the landscapes of our minds, writing beautifully of a part of our collective past and consciousness. Such a book is Possum Trot, by an Iowa author named J. Harley McIlrath, published by Ice Cube Books, a small publisher in North Liberty, Iowa. I just received a copy, devoured it and recommend it highly.
McIlrath inherits a long tradition of Midwestern writing, some of it among the monuments of American literature, which have helped define this region and this country. Some of this is city-based -- Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, for instance. But much has come from the small towns and farms of the Midwest -- Winesburg and Gopher Prairie and Spoon River -- obscure places that have become everybody's home town. Some of this is by expats looking back in anger or despair (e.g., Sinclair Lewis), some by people who never left, either in fact or psychologically (Marilynne Robinson, Kathleen Norris).
It's too early to put McIlrath and his first book in this pantheon. But it's not too early to suggest that we all keep an eye on him and what he has to tell us about ourselves.
Harley McIlrath grew up on a Iowa farm on the Jasper-Poweshiek county line (that's the Newton-Grinnell area, just east of Des Moines) and earns his living as book buyer for the Grinnell College bookstore. Possum Trot is a collection of short stories about the lives of people who live on the farms or in the tiny farm towns in his neck of the woods. If Marilynne Robinson (author of Home and Gilead, winner of a Pulitzer Prize) captures the rhythms and slow crises of small towns, McIlrath does the same for farm people. These are people he knows and cares about. His eye and his ear for their lives, the way they talk and think -- the quiet agonies, the stoic emotions, the impossibility of really knowing the few people who share their lives, the longing for and fear of a wider world -- strikes me as pitch-perfect. He knows that “creek” is properly spelled “crick” and can describe how it feels when a torrential rain suddenly brings life to a halt, when there’s nothing to do but stand in a barn door for hours and watch the water come down vertically two feet away:
"The rain came in a downpour. The boy's father stood watching in the open garage door, his hands sunk deep in denim pockets, the collar turned up on his jacket and his cap pushed back on his head. The rain fell in gray sheets in front of him, splashing the grease-darkened leather of his Wolverine boots and running in streams down the driveway.
"'Long as the oats don't go down,' the boy's father said into the rain."
I grew up among people like this and I recognize them in Possum Trot.
He’s a lovely writer:
"Ruby sits alone on the porch looking west out over the railing. She looks past the yard fence, across the road and past the fields and their fences, past the little country church and its tombstones, to the lights beginning to appear in the distant town. She fans herself monotonously with a rhubarb leaf cut from the garden. The smell of her momma’s rose garden hangs thick in the air, mixed with the smells of rotted flesh and burning twine from inside the house, the twine burnt to mask the stink of her poppa’s disease. He is sleeping now, finally, after Ruby’s long, gentle stroking of his thin hair. It is the only thing that brings him sleep, and she must be careful not to disturb the cancer that creeps into the hairline and eats the features of the tired face.”
Nothing happens to Ruby, except her flight from life, in the sense that nothing happened to Miss Judith Hearne in Brian Moore’s classic novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (except it took Moore a whole book to say what McIlrath says in six pages). But things happen to characters in other stories, like the Grinnell professor who goes out to take pictures of barns and ends up getting bitten by a monkey in a farmer’s bar called Bob’s in Gilman, which actually exists (the town, I mean, maybe not the bar). The bar, in its way, is memorable, and so is one of the abandoned barns he found:
“Have you ever been in the old rural churches of Ireland, Sam? Have you sat in a wooden pew between stone walls in a dim light and felt the dampness of the hymnal in your hand? You can smell the years. They permeate the stone and the wood and the paper. They hang in the air and cling to your clothing. You can feel them on your skin. The years are thick there, they are tangible and they smell of must. That’s how it was in that barn. It was dark and damp and musty. The light fell through the broken window panes. A harness hung from a spike hammered into a pole. There were buckets scattered around – there was an overturned milk canister. I went into a pen, and there was still hay in the manger. Christ was born in a barn, Sam. Do you remember? He slept in the hay of a manger. ‘No room at the inn.’ Do you remember? You don’t want to hear this, Sam, but it’s good for you. It’s good for us. I fear we have forgotten.”
Sam is the chairman of a faculty committee at the college, and the author is explaining why he couldn’t make a committee meeting, because he got bit by that monkey in Bob’s Bar in Gilman and had to go to Des Moines for a rabies shot. Does this make any sense? Go read the story.
McIlrath, like the best writers, remembers what it was like to be a boy, especially those moments when we realize that life may be more complicated than we'd supposed:
"I felt as if someone had handed me a weight I wasn't strong enough to hold."
I don't know McIlrath, but we've exchanged emails and he says he's working on a novel, in his spare time from a job and being a father to two children. The stories, of course, lack the sustained depth of Marilynne Robinson's books, so we'll have to wait for the novel to see if he can hit big-league pitching.
McIlrath seems to have been around long enough to know what a country church in Ireland feels like. He has the ability to look at rural life as a native, but with the sophistication and irony that make for a good story. As the above indicates, he’s religious, I think, or many of his characters are religious, especially on Sunday, less so the rest of the week. They are people who believe in God but don't entirely trust him. They know that the same God that gives them the spring rains to plant their beans also sends the hail storm that destroys them.
Many of his people lead narrow lives, like so many characters in Midwestern fiction, but they’re real and intense lives, and McIlrath gives them a voice.