"Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy" by Michael Perry; Harper (240 pages, $25.99)
Of the recent books extolling and commending French essayist Michel de Montaigne, Michael Perry's new one might be the Montaignest.
Like Montaigne – the 16th-century writer and philosopher generally considered the Babe Ruth of personal essayists – Perry knows both the acute agony of passing a kidney stone and the chronic anxiety of living in a time of conflict. And if you're willing to stretch a definition, both might be considered gentlemen farmers (though Montaigne never had to sing for his supper on public radio).
Perry's "Montaigne in Barn Boots" (Harper) suggests another way two fellows separated by centuries and the Atlantic Ocean are alike. When it comes to writing, both are willing to follow their mind wherever it goes, and recount its path for us. The verb in the subtitle of Perry's book describes it well: "An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy."
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Best known for his memoir "Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time" (2002), Perry lives in rural northwestern Wisconsin, where he continues to serve with his local volunteer fire department. He was a nurse and emergency medical technician before turning to writing and performing for a living.
In the introduction to this book, Perry discloses that he was first drawn to Montaigne following a kidney stone attack. "While prostrate in a Percocet haze, I had a vision I might convert my agony into cash by writing a personal essay about the experience," he writes. Reading medical journal articles, he kept running into references to Montaigne's writing about his kidney stones.
Even after he finished his own essay, Perry kept returning to the Frenchman, loving the variety and serendipity of Montaigne's subjects, including thumbs, cannibalism and flatulence. "The guy would write about anything," Perry writes of Montaigne. Of course, Perry is no piker in the write-about-anything game: He wrote a whole book about trying to repair an old truck (and, to be fair to him, also about falling in love at the same time).
In a telephone interview, Perry said reader interest in Montaigne has never really waned; his publisher didn't need any arm-twisting to say yes to this pitch. He also noted that Sarah Bakewell's popular "How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer," published in the U.S. in 2011, has stoked the Montaigne flame.
For Perry, "there's something about (Montaigne's) frankness, there's something about his approachability" that's appealing, he said.
Frankness and approachability? Those words apply to Perry, too, in this book, where he writes about sex, flatulence and junk food, though not necessarily in ways a reader might predict. Fellow writers might be chilled with terror, as I was, by Perry's description of anxiously pacing the driveway in the middle of the night, unable to make deadline on a writing project whose income he was counting on to support his family.
"I'm really in over my head with this," but that's part of the fun, Perry said of his literary stroll with Montaigne. "There are people who've built entire careers parsing just a paragraph of his.
"But on the other hand, I think that's part of Montaigne's charm, you have a right to sit in your deer stand and read him and go, 'Oh, well, here's what he made me think.'"
Perry also quotes, rather suitably, his favorite book about Montaigne, Donald M. Frame's "Montaigne's Discovery of Man": "The best book about Montaigne was written long ago ... by Montaigne himself."
Quotes and citations play a major role in Perry's book, just as they do in Montaigne's essays. Perry not only quotes Montaigne early and often, he cites Bakewell and Frame and other commentators and Montaigne bloggers, and contemporary writers Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Keith Richards, too. It's a wide-ranging colloquy.
One quality Perry appreciates is Montaigne's willingness to hedge, his reluctance to declare that his word on a subject is the last word.
"He was a paragon of fair-minded uncertainty," Perry said. Montaigne's willingness to say he could be wrong about something "is above all why I like him, because there's so much angry declaration all around us. ... "
Approaching a subject as Montaigne did, "saying 'I could be wrong,' it's a way of being humble and considering your own privilege," Perry said.
In this book, particularly in a chapter titled "Roughneck Intersectionality," Perry writes about the double consciousness of being both a lifelong rural American and a culture-loving, writer-quoting public-radio dude. It's not a new subject for him, and it's a significant source of his humor. At the same time, he feels the tension of the perceived conflict between those two Americas.
"With each passing year, I'm ever more grateful that I accidentally wound up traveling in both worlds simultaneously. That said, with each passing year, I admit to the growing concern about the distance between the two," he said.
Perry gets at this conflict through several anecdotes about his frustration with "non-spill" fuel nozzles. "I can do a pretty good riff on the well-earned stereotypes of public radio," he writes. "But I also know that ... I have shaken the hands of thousands of public-radio listeners and a not-insignificant percentage of those hands are callused."
Asked what he would say to Montaigne if he could speak with him, Perry replied, "Holy schnikes! I'd ask him if he wanted some Toradol," referring to a medicine sometimes prescribed for kidney-stone pain. "My flip answer would be, 'Try one of these, man.'"
Then, turning more serious (though never discount the seriousness of a nurse discussing pain relief), Perry said, "First I would think him for his thoughtful examination of whatever came to his attention. But then I would say, at what point are we culpable for not engaging in some specific action based on what we've learned?
"I take a call on the fire service now and then, but I've never been a good front-line battler. I'm kind of a wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, hang-back-think-it-over-and-then-write-something guy. ..."
In the final chapter of his book, Perry suggests how Montaigne appeared to answer that question for himself:
"He doubted his writing could transform the prejudices of his fellow citizens, and again and again returned to the idea that real job at hand was to transform himself ('Not being able to govern events, I govern myself') by questioning his own judgment and in doing so possibly inspire others to do the same."