In Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace, the old soul who is Michael Perry has forged another frank, enchanting rendering of Wisconsin country life. This is the tale of his neighbor Tom, an aging farmer whose life weaves in and out of Perry's own in ways both earthbound and mystical. Perry will read from this book Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Overture Center's Promenade Hall, as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Looking up from their latest welding project, old Tom (and Perry) would surely scoff at that last descriptor. Yet the joints of this narrative hinge together two generations that show what a good life asks of us: to be fair, to persevere, to help your neighbor and, whatever the load, to keep your sense of humor.
The story travels smoothly in three lanes: Tom's recollection of the construction of a state highway that split his farm (and his life) right in two; Perry's own fist-shake at government officials who are hell-bent on carving out a road that will diminish access to his property; and the ups and downs of marriage and family life.
There's also a cannon that fires cement-filled coffee cans.
Perry's passages describing his phone calls and physical encounters with small-town officials are among his most comical to date. As for Tom's heroic but doomed fight against a state road years ago, Perry reveals how it hardened his friend to the ways and means of government and led him to accept how fate and forgiveness work.
The book's chorus is the clever dispatch of J. Shimon and J. Lindemann, the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, photographers Perry hires to shoot pictures for his projects. Some of Tom's best stories are told to this duo as they frame shots here and there on his property. This device allows readers to sympathize with Tom's captive audience, to become an audience to an audience. It helps keep Tom's tales fresh in the making. The duo's stark but loving compositions of Tom are keepsakes of their own.
Throughout and as he always has, Perry opens the doors to his own life. He doesn't put his old neighbor on a pedestal or hold him up as a mentor. He simply comments on the reflection of his own life as seen in the cracked mirror that is Tom's.
No one can marry the world of roughneck and sophisticate better than Perry. This is an author who can spell out, in detail, the immediate merits of a well-aimed Super Redhawk .44 Magnum on one page and use a word like "anodyne" on the next. His ability to swing both ways -- clodhopper and poet -- and his incredible, meticulous attention to detail, both literal and metaphorical, help keep Visiting Tom on par with the best of his past work.
This review is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.