The essays of Montaigne spark midlife reflection by the rural Wisconsin–based author.
With a kidney stone as a shared affliction, Perry (The Jesus Cow, 2015, etc.) discovered an unlikely affinity with the French aristocrat, a shared humanity and spirit of discovery that bridge centuries, continents, and cultural differences. “You read Montaigne, you feel like you have a friend,” writes the author, and so readers are likely to feel about Perry, who has often drawn from his small-town life with self-deprecating humor and Midwestern common sense. That same spirit permeates his scattershot reading of Montaigne, a body of work he approaches without anything resembling academic rigor; he mainly allows one thing to lead to another, from Montaigne to commentaries on Montaigne to meditations on the author’s own life. “The desire to write about Montaigne puts me in heavy traffic on a tricycle,” writes Perry. It’s an image he likes so much that he later uses it to suggest his own limitations as a writer: “When I crack and read two pages of Dylan Thomas or Zora Neale Hurston, I understand that I am in the Tour de France on a tricycle.” Yet Perry’s refreshing candor, the essence of the personal essay, serves him well, as he opens his soul about his depression and anxiety, his marriage, his health (and hypochondria), and his recognition of the gulf between the persona he presents as a writer and performer and the person he knows (or suspects) himself to be. Though he supports himself by writing for money, and need make no apology for that, his aim here seems more like a soul-cleansing confession, like a writer talking to himself about the issues that concern him most. As he explains of his reading of Montaigne, “we only come to understand ourselves over time and then never fully. He was less interested in drawing conclusions about himself than having a conversation with himself. The dialogue would end only in death.”
Readers will learn plenty about Montaigne and more about Perry.