When the advance copy of this book first appeared, I made time to page through it mainly because of its subtitle: A Memoir of Disaster and Love. Because who hasn’t lived through the twin poles of love and disaster? Show of hands?
Especially the ones involved in marriage, which is what Joe Blair’s memoir is about: a marriage in deep trouble, and his attempt to shore it up before it collapsed. In the finished book, By the Iowa Sea has lost its subtitle. But the twin poles remain.
It all begins with rain—“an innocent enough thing…day after day of it. Through February and March and April and May.” But this is no average rain.
In the early spring of 2008, heavy rains pound the Midwest and the Iowa River floods, transforming the streets and parking lots and manicured lawns of Joe’s small town into a beautiful, terrible sea. With the flood comes an atmosphere of irresistible change. All of the activities Joe thought were inevitable—his commutes to work, his trips to the grocery store—are now impossible. And freedom, that beautiful, terrible thing, is suddenly forced upon him.
That quote is directly from the publisher’s catalog. I was intrigued, but it wasn’t really what drew me into the story. Nor was it the first few pages of Blair’s memoir. What I couldn’t quit reading was something I found when I opened the book at random: a description of a fight he’d had with his wife.
Before I get to that, it must be said that much of Blair’s book is about his love affair with motorcycles (Blair’s mom gave him a copy of The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he was 15). His love affair with his wife, Deb, begins with a motorcycle trip they planned—to ride across country on his n’ hers Hondas.
It tanked immediately when, during a ferry ride to get to Martha’s Vineyard, Joe zipped up the ramp to park his bike, and Deb fell over. He didn’t even notice. Someone else had to help her up; she refused to get back on the bike at all, and they finished their cross-country trip on Joe’s.
They’ll never be quite as free as they were during that trip, and Blair sets it up so well you don’t even realize it, even when he says up front that they ended up with four kids, one who’s diagnosed autistic. He slips this in so quietly that at first you don’t realize this is part of what’s strained the marriage.
Because the blow-by-blow arguments aren’t about their kids at all. Which brings us back to the very long fight.
Deb, to her great credit, fights like a real wife/girlfriend, and not like some male writer’s version of one: This encounter takes place after he brings home a bottle of wine that’s been riding around in the back of his truck, a present from one of his customers that he also happens to be on the brink of an affair with.
“Oh!” says Deb as I’m stomping my feet on the mat after I’ve handed her the bottle. “You got some fancy wine! Hey. It’s sort of … scuffed up. … Where’d you get this?” she holds the bottle up to the light.
“The place,” I say.
Deb studies the label. “The place?” she says. “What place? It looks like it’s been through the mill.”
“Really?” I say. “Here. Let me see.”
“Where’d you get it?” says Deb, eyeing me.
“Oh,” I say. “It was in my truck. A customer gave it to me.”
“Customer?” I nod, studying the label, as if looking for the answer to her question there.
“Oh,” I say. “Some woman. I did a boiler inspection.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know her name?”
This goes on for six more pages, and it may be one of the most realistic relationship bouts I’ve ever read. It’s painful and honest and I tried to look away, but couldn’t. For almost all of the last two pages of it, no matter what he says, she says “Fuck you.” And he replies, “Awesome.”
Blair is as good with description as he is with, um, arguments. Here, he’s describing Iowa as he first saw it, after riding through North Dakota, Minnesota (Deb’s home state).
Nothing was as beautiful as Iowa. In my art appreciation class at UMass Lowell, I remember thinking that Grant Wood must have smoked some powerful weed in order to paint landscapes the way he did, with his roly-poly hills and lollipop trees. I didn’t know that such a landscape could exist.
And then there’s this stunning passage about his son, Michael:
What might it have meant for us if we could have had some foresight when it came to our youngest son, Michael? What if there existed, on the outskirts of town, when he was first born, an oracle? And we were to have brought the oracle a few gifts—a ring, a tripod, ten goats—and asked about our newborn child, and the oracle, after ruminating on the Truth of things, were to have opened her mouth and chanted, in the same annoying, singsong way Alan Ginsberg read his own poetry, the following: You son will be outcast from the gatherings of men. His language will be the language of crows…
By the Iowa Sea is a story about love and also about autism. The last book I read on this subject, also fiction, also about a father and his son, was Drew Perry’s hilarious, tender debut novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You.
These two men should meet, one fictional and one real, who study their sons the way someone else would look at an old master painting in a museum: “Sometimes I get the sense, when Michael looks at me with that distant stare, that he’s not really looking at me at all, rather beyond me into some other place where everything makes some other sense.”
Here, if you scroll down, is an interview with Joe Blair that talks about the title of the book, where he wrote it, and his habit of transcribing his and his wife’s arguments.
Read my 2010 review of Drew Perry’s novel.
Blind Faith, performing “Sea of Joy” at London’s Hyde Park, 1969