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Review: ‘Visiting Tom’ by Michael Perry

Review: ‘Visiting Tom’ by Michael Perry post image

Michael Perry is one of those authors that I like and admire, but I haven’t actually read that often. He’s written six books, all on various topics of rural life, but I’ve only ever finished one — Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg. I’ve perused bits and pieces of a couple of his other books, but they’re all written in this sort of meandering style that makes them easy to pick up (and put back down again) as the mood strikes.

For that reason, I was really excited to be on a tour for his most recent book, Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway and the Road to Roughneck Grace. I knew I’d like it, but I also knew that having a date for review planned ahead would keep me from putting the book aside for something that seems, at first, a little more exciting:

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 finds out. Toiling in his shop, Tom Hartwig makes gag shovel handles, parts for quarter-million-dollar farm equipment, and — now and then — batches of potentially “extralegal” explosives. Tom, who is approaching his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife, Arlene, and is famous for driving a team of oxen in local parades, has stories dating back to the days of his prize Model A and an antiauthoritarian streak refreshed daily by the interstate that was shoved through his front yard in 1965 and now dumps more than eight 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 as husbands and the fathers of daughters — unvarnished tenderness.

There are a lot of different plots moving through this book, stories that wind around each other much like the interstate highways and country roads that provide the tension in this story. Tom’s story of battling the interstate system parallels a smaller story about Perry fighting with a county highway commissioner about the road near his house. I thought Perry’s local government nightmare was really funny to read about (since I cover local government for my job and so I have totally seen what happens to him happen in my life too), but of course you have to be at least a little bit of a government nerd to really love that.

One of the challenges to reading Perry, I think, is that the day-to-day of what he writes about is pretty mellow. He’s a Midwestern guy living on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, a place that sets up a very particular lifestyle and very particular set of challenges. Small town life can be insular, specific, and idiosyncratic, to a point where some of the dramas that make for big news down at the coffee shop or in the pages of a book can seem quite small when you’re not in it. I think for me, that sometimes makes it easy to put one of his books down and forget to pick it up again — the “plot” isn’t necessarily what is going to keep you reading.

What will keep you coming back is Perry’s writing style. He has mastered this folksy, sarcastic voice that makes him both genuine and snarky. His sense of humor is veiled, but when you get into the style and start to see what he’s seeing, it’s just wonderful. For me, his descriptions of sitting in public meetings, the “Midwestern tug-of-war” he gets into with a local official, or the specifics of cold weather driving posture were just golden. But he’s equally as charming writing about the first time he met his wife and the role the Hartwig’s played in their courtship.

I liked this one a lot, and I’m glad to have been given a little push to revisit Michael Perry. I’m feeling inspired to grab one of his older books from my shelves because his sense of rural comedy seems perfect at this time of year.

tlc logoOther Tour Stops: Bibliotica | BookNAround | The Road to Here | Book Club Classics! | Capricious Reader | Apples and Arteries (Sept. 5) | It’s All About Books (Sept. 9) | Read. Write. Repeat. (Sept. 10) | Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books (Sept. 11) | The Library of Alexandra (Sept. 12) |

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandy September 5, 2013, 5:46 am

    I really like this writing style and the types of books that give you a true slice of life. I just have to read it when I’m in the right mood, otherwise I drift.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:31 am

      The same is true for me. If there’s a more “exciting” book calling my attention, I get very distracted from books like this one. But when get into them, I love them.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading September 5, 2013, 6:37 am

    I keep seeing this book and have the sense that I would really love it, but I know it would make me miss Michigan like crazy. Maybe this would be a good one to read when I’m visiting and surrounded by that good, cold weather 😉

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:32 am

      Perry lives in a part of Wisconsin pretty near where my parents have a cabin, so I was missing that place a lot when reading this book! I’ll have to bring one of his other books with me next time I’m there and see of the setting makes it better too.

  • Jeanne September 5, 2013, 7:42 am

    I’ve also enjoyed Perry’s writing style in his previous books; it does help that I’ve been living in a very small and northern town for a while.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:33 am

      I think being from a small town does make his books more appealing — he nails so much of what it means to live there.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) September 5, 2013, 8:02 am

    I have a couple of his books and have a feeling I’ll like them too.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:33 am


  • Katie @ Doing Dewey September 5, 2013, 5:06 pm

    Sometimes I enjoy reading books about rural or small town life, like the At Home in Mitford series. They’re like cozy mysteries without the mystery. I think maybe I like this sort of story because I find it relatable. Like Sandy, I think I have to be in the right mood, but I like snarky authors enough that I’ll make an effort to get to this or one of the author’s other books 🙂

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:34 am

      I like that comparison to cozy mysteries — it makes a lot of sense to me!

  • Heather J @ TLC Book Tours September 7, 2013, 11:42 am

    I’ve been meaning to read Perry’s books for a while now, but this one in particular is really calling to me.

    Thanks for being on the tour Kim. I’m featuring your review on TLC’s Facebook page today.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:34 am

      Thanks Heather!

  • Laurie C September 8, 2013, 7:57 am

    This author is new to me! I enjoy Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson’s books, and this sounds like maybe a similar style?

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:35 am

      Yeah, I think it is. I think Perry is less cranky than Bryson and probably more sarcastic than Keillor, but they’re definitely in the same family of books.

  • Alise September 11, 2013, 11:06 am

    So glad we were on this book tour together. This is the first book I have read by Michael Perry but I definitely want to read more of his work now. I completely agree that his writing seems just right for fall.

  • Christy October 1, 2013, 7:45 pm

    I really really enjoyed Population: 485. It’s got humor (and a little tragedy) and it has stuck in my memory though I read it back in 2005. I have also read a book of essays by him called Off Main Street, which I didn’t really get into.