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Book Review

Coming back home, he finds humor, beauty

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Montgomery-Fate
July 12, 2008

Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships
By John T. Price
Da Capo, 263 pp., $25

Nature writer John T. Price's new memoir, "Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships," is the story of his growing up in one of those flat, boring "How do I get out of here?" states: Iowa. Yet readers from any state will identify with his narrative, with the "unexpected, defining journey of my life: To come home without ever having left."

The early chapters - childhood and adolescence - call to mind the self-deprecating humor and startling honesty of writer Anne Lamott. Price struggles mightily to find a "home" at school amid his peers, to earn social acceptance and discover some sense of identity. But raging acne, his short stature, and the constant drive for recognition and romance instead result in a string of hilarious coming-of-age fiascos.

"The . . . only time I'd been asked to a dance was in eighth grade . . . at the popular Rainforest disco. My date, Liz, was cute and barely taller than me, but deaf. In order to dance, she needed to feel the vibrations of the music, which required standing very close to the massive floor speakers - an excruciating experience. . . . Plus, I was so short that whenever they released the dry ice (which was often, as this was a rainforest) I became blinded and choked by the low-lying fog. In the midst of one of those deafening clouds, I knocked Liz's glasses off her face and spent the rest of the song searching for them on my hands and knees."

But the wonder of this book is how such humor is balanced by a Thoreau-like sensitivity, to the natural world and other things. "The question is not what you look at, but what you see," Thoreau once wrote. Price sees with a deep and arresting clarity. Each chapter is a delicate weave of the I and the eye, of self and world. Thus, in the same way that he finds humor and beauty in his ordinary, sometimes disappointing adolescence, he also finds it in his despoiled home ground, Iowa: "the most ecologically altered state in the union, with less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its native habitats remaining."

It is a natural disaster, the Iowa floods of 1993, that reveals to him the history and potential of his pesticide- and fertilizer-drenched home state. Though the overflow of Iowa rivers and streams causes much hardship, Price also sees the striking changes in the landscape - the ordinary miracles of farmland abruptly turned into wetland by a flood: "Herons stood piercing frogs in the shallows . . . pelicans flew in great cyclonic towers . . . bald eagles swung low to pick off stranded fish. Perched on soggy, neglected fence posts were birds I hadn't seen since early childhood, bobolinks and bluebirds and tanagers. Their color and song drew my eye closer to the earth, to the ragged ditches full of forgotten wildflowers and grasses - primrose and horsemint, big blue and switch - safe, at least for a while, from the mower's blade. The domesticated landscape of my home had gone wild and I was mesmerized by it."

This epiphany awakens Price, renewing both his sense of relatedness to the desecrated natural world in which he lives, and his sense of hope about the possibility of its restoration. In the end it is this sense of relatedness, or what Price calls kinship, that thematically holds the book together, that knits the wide-ranging stories into a woven whole, a life. Whether he is writing about fatherhood, or marriage, or gardening, or snow geese, readers will be captivated by his honest and funny search for meaning, for belonging, for home.

Tom Montgomery-Fate is the author of "Steady and Trembling: Art, Faith and Family in an Uncertain World." He is a professor of English at College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

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