If you want to read a literary book on firefighting or small town living then this is the book. Population: 485 is a hilarious and moving collection of essays written about New Auburn, Wisconsin; a town of, yes, you guessed it–485 people. Not only is Michael Perry a skilled writer, he is also a volunteer firefighter/emt, and he captures the chaos and insanity of this world beautifully.
Not many firefighters are dedicated to the literary tradition of writing, so it isn’t easy to find such a talented voice to account their day to day lives. Perry is the man. Never have I had more respect for volunteer firefighters than I do now. In New Auburn, rarely are they truly off-duty. They leave work, family, or home at a moment’s notice and even respond to calls alone with no idea of who will show up or when. Regardless of back up, when the beeper goes off Michael Perry goes running, sometimes in spandex cycling shorts, other times in cowboy boots.
The rural landscape has dangers all it’s own: an explosively defecating cow or a clan of suspicious drunk rednecks armed to the hilt in the middle of nowhere. Despite the perils, Perry loves small town living, although he does sometimes get a hankering to take off and roam. He describes in warm detail the denizens of his environs and often accounts their deaths as well. In a town as small as New Auburn, everyone knows everyone, and it’s hard to forget the exact curve of road where your neighbor died.
Death comes with the territory and Perry does not skirt it. He is a man’s man, but with a sensitive side inclined to philosophize and contemplate all that he is witness to. When he’s not skinning deer or traipsing through a swamp hunting duck, he’s hanging out at the local poetry reading. There’s a touch of Hemingway here, although unlike the American Master, Perry is expert at making fun of himself and bringing the “heroes” down to earth. He recounts the foibles, follies, and mishaps of the firefighters who respond in the middle of the night for almost no pay in hilarious detail. One minute Perry had me laughing out loud; the next I was struck silent by his ruminations on death, loss, and the intangible bonds of love that hold the entire town together.