Book Report: Worthy of note: A fictitious life, rock solid prose
"Driving on the Rim," by Thomas McGuane (Knopf, $26.95), is definitely not a novel about the tire shortage during World War II, when some people actually did drive on their rims.
No, the wildly talented McGuane has created a character who metaphorically has driven his whole life "on the rim."
His character is I. B. "Berl" Pickett, M.D. His Christian name is Irving Berlin Pickett and was named by his mother, a very Christian -- nay crazy -- woman, a Pentecostal to the core.
With a name like that and parents who worked as itinerant rug cleaners and an aunt who introduced him to the wonders of sex, how could Berl Pickett have survived into manhood? With the help of a kindly local doctor, who helps send Berl off to med school.
Unfortunately, Berl is no Marcus Welby, M.D., or even Ben Casey. Bad luck still haunts the doctor. Everyone at his clinic mistrusts him; some think he's responsible for the death of a former lover.
Others in the small town watch him like a hawk. (McGuane seems to know about small towns and lives in a place called McLeod, Mont.)
But Berl perseveres, helped along by the connections he's made with patients and friends and McGuane's fairly positive attitude in this fictional age of negativism.
The spring issue of "The Bitter Oleander," a New York literary magazine recently crossed my desk.
Each year, the mag picks its favorite annual submission. In 1997 local poet Thomas R. Smith received the first Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award, which carried with it a $1,000 prize.
This year another River Falls writer appears in this very lovely journal of poetry and prose. His name is Philip Todd and he's located fairly near to more well-known poet from the area, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Bly.
Here's Todd's haunting prose poem:
For a long time now it has only been a man and his garden rock.
The garden's not much -- just a patch of yard with scattered thistle, clover, dandelions, crabgrass.
Before this the man had his one wife. When she left there was no wife. Only the rock in the garden was left.
Years ago the rock was mostly buried. The man dug it out when he built the house. He built the house when he had the one wife.
The rock was large, really too large to roll, and colorless, caked with grime and grit. Rain washed the exposed rock. Soon streaks of color surfaced, baked bright by the sun, highlighted by the moon.
So, long after the one wife had left, they sat in the scruffy garden -- a man, his one rock. No words exchanged, just the sound of wind between them, ruffling the man's beard, passing smoothly over the rock's surface.
The man was prone to smile at his rock, its colors now bleached. He would raise it with both hands, fingering its grainy texture, probing its crevices.
Rock solid, he whispered to it on more than one occasion.
One day the sight of the rock in the middle of the garden stopped him cold. The rock, weathered by the elements, had split apart along a deep crevice. The man fell to his knees before the fragmented rock and stared. One rock plus one rock equals...two...Again two precious things belonged in his life.
Oh, but which one should he touch first? His outstretched, trembling hands paused before each rock fragment as tears moistened the sides of his beard.
The contributor notes at anthology's end tell us that Philip Todd is a "pen name" for a community newspaper editor in a college town of 15,000 in western Wisconsin.
Think of it! An "ink stained wretch" (that's what they call journalists in the poetry biz) making it into a prestigious journal!
I asked my boss, Phil Pfuehler, the River Falls Journal editor, if he had any idea who the real Philip Todd might be.
I detected a slight blush.
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