Monday, April 25, 2011

McIlrath trots out in style

Originally printed November 18, 2010

There a reason why J. Harley McIlrath's "Possum Trot" (Ice Cube Press, 2010) has such long list of blurbs from local writers: It's a book packed full of tightly written, powerful stories about Iowa. And luckily for local readers, "Possum Trot" lives up to such high praise as "an instant classic" (Stephen Kuusisto) and "an entertaining, timeless book" (Josh Emmons).

"If I was to tell you what Grandpa looked like," writes the narrator of "China," "I'd start with his Magnavox and then go to his La-Z Boy. Then I'd tell you about the Folgers can he spit in, and if you were still interested after that, I might think what his face looked like."

In that story, the narrator never really gets around to describing his grandfather's face, yet McIlrath still manages to flesh out the characters indirectly as he tells a story about why the grandfather's wife threw all of her expensive china into the creek before she died and why, even though years have passed, no one has dared pick up any of the pieces.

McIlrath primarily tells stories of the dirt roads and rural byways that most people never reach or that they travel only when they're tossing trash or participating in various illicit activities.

"My mom said that once the high school kids and town people left the city limits they acted like they were in the wilderness," writes the narrator in "Dirt Road," "like they thought nobody lived out there."

McIlrath writes about children like Mickey McDonald, about whom the narrator of "Micky's Dad" notes, "We all noticed how our parents doted on Mickey when he came over. Not doted, really, but treated him different. Gave him a little more attention than the rest of the guys. Our dads all tousled his hair and our moms all made sure he had everything he wanted. We didn't mind. We figured they was making up for his dad being crazy."

And while a few stories foray into more urban settings, McIlrath does so only to highlight the isolation, anonymity and mistaken identity that can be experienced by anyone, anywhere.

A few people have mistakenly described "Possum Trot" as a collection of essays rather than stories, but that's understandable given the authority in McIlrath's voice. It's hard to believe he didn't experience these events firsthand.

Many of McIlrath's paragraphs are so inviting, in fact, it's hard to fight off the temptation to read them aloud -- even in public places. That's why it's good McIlrath is in town to read them aloud at 7 tonight in Prairie Lights.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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