Leave early, stop at Fraboni's to pick up a sub for dinner and get to the west-side Borders in plenty of time to park, eat, grab a 20-ounce iced coffee, wander the aisles a bit and take a seat 10 or 15 minutes before Michael Perry stepped up to the podium. That was my plan. But the best laid schemes o' mice and men/Gang aft agley;/An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,/For promis'd joy.
Mind you, I don't know about the grief an' pain and promis'd joy bits. That sounds more than a little melodramatic. (One imagines a books-on-tape version with moaning wails, gnashing teeth and a chorus of cherubic angels harmonizing in the background.) But I've got anecdotal evidence that what Robert Burns wrote about the best-laid plans of mice and men going astray holds true for a middle-aged Wisconsin Book Festival enthusiast such as meself.
I left early and stopped at Fraboni's for the sub, but when I pulled into the Borders parking lot at a minute or three past 6:30 p.m. Thursday night, the parking lot was full. And when I say it was full, I mean the only open spots on all the asphalt ringing Borders were spots reserved for people with disabilities or for customers of neighboring businesses. After two hopeful laps up and down each and every row of stalls in the lot, I heeded Dante's admonition, abandoned hope and drove around until I found a place to park on some dark and dead-end street at the southwest fringes of Shorewood Hills.
The Fraboni's sub was a large #3 with Swiss & mozzarella, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions and their sub sauce on wheat. It somehow managed to vanish somewhere between the car and Borders. All those bites I took out of it might have had something to do with its disappearance. Deeeeeeeeeeee-lish.
The 20-ounce iced coffee was secured according to plan, if a wee bit tardy at 6:45. Wandering the aisle would have to wait. Bounding up the stairs, I was confronted by so many Perry fans that more than half of them were standing -- and many of those standing were overflowing into the merchandise aisles.
That gives you some idea of Perry's appeal -- or at least the extent of it. The quality of it derives from his lack of affectation, his self-deprecating sense of humor, his willingness to write about himself as a vulnerable guy, the craft with which he writes fanfares for the common man.
All were on display Thursday night during his Wisconsin Book Festival appearance. Perry made his first big splash a couple years ago with Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, a memoir about returning to New Auburn, Wis. -- the hometown of his youth -- after a 12-year absence, and putting down roots as a volunteer EMT for the village's fire and rescue department.
His new book, Truck: A Love Story, follows three main narrative tracks. One involves working with his mechanic brother to restore Perry's vintage International Harvester truck. Another focuses on his adventures -- and misadventures -- in gardening. The third is about being blindsided by unexpected love at an age by which he had come to accept the inevitability of his bachelorhood.
All three of these narrative lines are braided into a rope that ties the book together. Perry read excerpts from all three narratives Thursday night, provoking great choruses of appreciative laughter from the audience. But at no point in the evening were those in attendance more supportive of the author than toward its end, when Perry noted how appreciative he was of the spectacular turnout for his appearance.
He noted how he'd been caught off-guard by the popularity of his books, how his career as an author had been more than a little accidental, and how all he'd intended to be was an emergency medical technician. He was grateful for how things had turned out, thankful for people like the scores in attendance who had read and enjoyed his books.
Perry's voice grew quiet as he expressed these sentiments. He promised to stay until he had signed copies of his books for everyone who wanted him to inscribe them. Then, as he repeated how grateful he was and his voice trailed off toward some faint whisper of vulnerability, his audience answered with an expression of requited gratitude as those in attendance erupted with applause.
Then, a long line of people queued up for his book-signing. Its movement was slow. The people in it were patient. Outside, the Borders parking lot was slow to empty.