A Year in Reading: Kerry Howley

December 21, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 2 min read

Nine, 10 months into this year, the boy had ceased to be a vector for invention. The world was the world, clean and crisp and solidly syllogistic. Everyone tells you about the fog of unreason that follows a new baby. No one tells you about the day the fog lifts and you blink back into the world of human arrangement. It’s fucking awful.

coverThe Celebrated Novels were certainly no help, nor the philosophical essay collections, nor the strivingly topical memoirs. I required, I see now, someone to talk to a beaver on my behalf. “When the men with bluish rifles line up along the illuminated railing of the Ozark Bridge, do not marvel at how the bridge’s support cables resemble your own ribcage,” writes Matthew Gavin Frank in The Mad Feast. “Protect your ears with your valvular flaps. Get lost in the soft tangle of the wild celery.”

A boy will complain “Beaver again?!” and you will recognize your name, know you’ve heard this complaint before — many, many times. You wake up again in the Arkansas river. You faintly remember the bullets, the biting. You build a dam against this.

The Mad Feast is nominally a book about American culinary tradition. Each essay takes as its subject a state and a dish: Lefse in North Dakota, Brisket in Texas. It’s an unpromising premise. Yet here is food writing not as moralizing bourgeois primer, not as homey tale of rediscovered roots, but as dark intellectual play. I appreciate both the absence of the phrase “farm-to-table” and the near-absences of both farms and tables. Instead, an essay about beaver tail (Arkansas), in which a reincarnated beaver struggles to remember his relationship to medieval theology. These are tightly unified pieces, which is to say that no tangent is truly tangential. Exclamations accumulate into echo.

You remember Thomas Aquinas, but not how you got to Arkansas. Since you can’t read, you remember only the crust of his knuckles, the musk of his collarbones…Cry me a river. Chew me a branch. Dream your body aromatic with carrots.

What I am saying is: you don’t need to have another baby. Engage your ear flaps. Sneak back into the celery. Mundane sense-makers hover above us, but there are many ways to build a dam.

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is the author of Thrown, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Her work has appeared in New York, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Granta. She teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa.

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