I was sort of excited when I first heard about Joe Blair's By the Iowa Sea, a memoir written by a middle-aged, working-class Iowa transplant who feels trapped by his wife, kids, house, and job. It almost seemed as if Joe had written this book for me. I am approaching middle age. I've been married to Maggie May for close to twenty years. Our two kids are rambunctious and demanding. Our house is so small I tell people we live in a shoebox. I'm a librarian, not a pipefitter, though I'm sure some analogy could be made between the two. I often wonder, "What in the hell am I doing in Iowa?" And like Joe, I think, "I want to be in love again. I want to be brave, to give everything away, to be iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, and artistic."
Besides identifying with Joe's Midwestern midlife crisis, I was also interested in reading about the 2008 Iowa floods, though I was skeptical about the premise that the floods "revived in Joe the hope and passion that once seemed so easy to come by." In October 2008 I volunteered to help gut a house in Cedar Rapids which had been destroyed by the floods. The water had reached the middle of the second floor, and we were ripping out carpeting, linoleum, drywall, and fixtures, everything down to the wooden frame, so building inspectors could later decide if the structure should be saved or razed. The wood itself was permeated with muck and mold and stench three months after the floods, so our stumbling around the wreckage seemed pretty pointless. And this was just one house among five thousand. When I heard about By the Iowa Sea, I was worried that it would trivialize loss and suffering by using the floods as a syrupy metaphor for marital rejuvenation.
But as it turns out, By the Iowa Sea is not exactly sweet. Joe Blair reminds me more of Michael Perry (Truck: A Love Story) than Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), but he's probably nothing like Vicki Myron (Dewey: the Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World), as the readers' advisory database NoveList would have us believe. "If you enjoy 'By the Iowa Sea,' you may also enjoy 'Dewey,'" NoveList suggests, "because both are moving Family and Relationships [sic] about Iowa." I doubt it, considering Joe Blair writes about such things as learning how to masturbate, fishing feces out of his child's bath, shopping for a vibrating dildo, getting drunk at the Wig and Pen, having sex in an alley after smoking marijuana, his wife's forgetting to remove a tampon, and so on. I have not read Dewey the Library Cat, but I certainly would reconsider doing so if it included witticisms like this: "The thought of a venereal disease put a major kink in our romantic, postflood love vacation."
Elton John sings about butterflies being free. "Butterflies are free to fly." This is what he sings. And then he wonders why the butterflies fly away. It's a touching sentiment I suppose. Bugs being free. But a bug being free doesn't mean very much to me. What do bugs do with all that freedom anyway?... to the moving, especially when Joe describes his relationship with his autistic son, Michael:
Our faces are very close in the dark. Mike likes it this way. Close. He is a beautiful boy. His eyes are large and liquid. His facial features are clean."Mike," I say in the darkness, "you're a good kid." I say it, and then I listen, for once. I don't stop listening after a few seconds but let the seconds run on. Mike has ceased his laughter now. After some time, I don't know how long, Mike whispers very quietly, "You're" and "a good kid." And then, "A good." And then,"Kid." And then "Mike, you're a good kid."Joe's range is interesting, but his effort to ascribe some sort of sense or meaning to it doesn't quite ring true. I wonder if this uncertainty is a result of how Joe wrote By the Iowa Sea. In recent interviews, Joe says he writes for about one hour each day, and for every one or two writing sessions he produces an enclosed one-thousand-word essay. You can read some of these on Joe's blog. For By the Iowa Sea, he took hundreds of these enclosed essays, opened them up by "chopping their heads and feet off," and rearranged them into one book-length story connected by a simple narrative arc, personal redemption through natural disaster. Joe did this, he explains, because "life is a goat path." In other words, without the narrative arc, a book of his disparate essays wouldn't make sense.
A favorite passage of mine is when Joe reads one of his essays to his writing partner:
Pamela frowns."I don't get it," she says.That passage makes me think of Raymond Carver, how Carver's characters never quite seem to know what's going on. My midlife crisis, my life, feels more like that.
"Don't get what?" I say.
"The whole thing," she says. "I mean, here's a guy working on a piece of equipment, and then he drives to Wal-Mart."
"I don't get it."
"Maybe there's nothing to get," I say."I mean . . . I just wrote the thing five minutes ago. I can’t really explain it to you."
She nods professionally.
And Carver struggled with the editing process, too:
"I know there are going to be stories… that aren't going to fit anyone's notion of what a Carver short story ought to be… But Gordon, God's truth… I can't undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads of hair sticking out" (Raymond Carver: the kindest cut).I don't want Joe Blair to chop the heads and feet off of his stories in order to try to make sense out of them. I want "irredeemable characters who circle the drain," as Joe has described his unpublished fiction in recent interviews. I want the goat path. Let the goat path be the narrative arc, Joe.
Joe Blair's Blog
Joe Blair Interviews
Other People with Brad Listi
Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe
Book Nook with Vick Mickunas
Talking With...Yale Cohn
By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir by Joe Blair was published on March 6, 2012 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This review was based on the digital galley obtained from Simon & Schuster through NetGalley.com.