“Moving back to small-town America” is a familiar, oft-romanticized theme in many books. Author Michael Perry, who returned to his hometown of New Auburn, Wisconsin armed with a nursing degree and a pickup truck full of life experiences, offers readers the truth, instead in this funny, poignant, and often mesmerizing collection of essays. Anyone familiar with the rhythms of rural America, particularly the Midwest, will find Population: 485 fits like a well-worn pair of slippers.
Perry, after twelve years away, returns to New Auburn and joins the volunteer fire department. His mother and brothers are already members, and Perry’s own EMT and nursing experience makes him a good fit, not to mention his writing schedule. As he answers one call after another - accidents, fires, even suicides - he finds himself reconnecting with his roots and establishing his place in the community.
Rather than a linear storyline, the book is episodic in nature. Each chapter details some of the emergencies to which Perry responds, and describes how, over time, he becomes more and more enmeshed in the life of the town. A carful of people rams into the local laundromat. An elderly man, full of cancer, takes his own life to spare his wife. A teenager in a stolen car pays the ultimate price for youthful foolishness. Barn fires, grass fires, house fires all play a part in helping Perry re-establish his ties. Along the way, Perry clues us in on his background in EMT work, as well as the history of New Auburn.
Tragedy and poignancy are interspersed with wiseass humor, perfect in its ability to balance the gritty realities of fire and rescue work, as well as the absurdities. Perry’s pride is evident as he explains that he’s never vomited on the job, while describing an episode that’s literally awash in it. What could have been repugnant is side-splittingly funny, instead. His descriptions of minor characters are razor-sharp:
My Uncle Shotsy was a UPS driver. He used to tell me that you could take any corner at exactly twice its posted speed. The second time he rolled his big brown van, UPS let him go. I still think of him every time I see a yellow curve sign and do the math. Uncle Shotsy was a victim of optimistic physics.
The book ends on a tragic, yet hopeful note, involving the death of someone close to Perry. In a few deft pages, he underscores the fragility and uncertainty of life. It’s in this final chapter, with its lightning-quick shift from joy to pain, that Perry demonstrates to readers how rooted he has become. His hometown and family is once more his rock-solid foundation.
Perry occasionally lapses into somewhat self-conscious prose, and readers may find themselves skipping short passages, but these are relatively few and only a minor distraction. Population: 485 is as genuine a slice of small-town America as we’re likely to find in print, and Michael Perry’s skills as a writer bring New Auburn to life. Don’t miss this gem of a book.