An intimate drink with a literate coyote: Perimeter Check II

Perimeter Check II, Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  187 pages.  $14.95.
Reviewed by Julia Shipley
copyright the Chronicle February 23, 2011
Fans of Paul Lefebvre’s know how his weekly column for this newspaper, Perimeter Check, is delivered like an intimate mutter, as if you’d dared yourself to climb on the barstool next him as he was ten minutes into his second whisky, and he had deigned to pretend you were a pretty good friend.
First conceived in 1999, Perimeter Check has appeared on a weekly basis in the Chronicle for almost 12 years.  As co-editor of the Chronicle, Bethany Dunbar acknowledged, “He’s always pretty easy to find on Mondays — he’s home writing his column.”
Mr. Lefebvre’s first book of columns, aptly titled, Perimeter Check, debuted in 2008.  This second collection, Perimeter Check II:  Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, gathers together more of these prize-winning episodes, as his column has won four first-place awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association since 2004.
In offering an explanation for the title and content of these 1,200-word dispatches, Mr. Lefebvre states in the introduction, “No one is sure what he will find by picking at the edges.  But it is at the edges where I have found a life. Small truths sometimes grow into a larger one, and I would like to believe the columns in this collection are keepers of little truths.”
Edges, as ecologists know, are places rich in biological activity; one of my favorite poets, a psychologist by training, asserts that, “Truth appears only at the borders,” and once, seated with a group around a campfire in a wilderness area in Arizona, I watched a coyote skirt our circle, trotting the perimeter where the flickering light of our campfire met the deep blue shadows.  In this manner, Mr. Lefebvre is like a literate coyote, whose beat is the place where two zones converge.
His column of November 21, 2007, takes for its beginning the phenomenon of in-between seasons, “when one season is not quite over and another flirts with beginning.”  His sentences are so unpretentiously smart and beautiful: “Dwellers of the Upper and Lower Kingdom alike will undoubtedly agree that when it comes to the space between winter and fall, all of us are living between a hope and a fantasy — etched indelibly in those lines where the snug hat meets the creases in the brow:  Maybe I’ve got enough wood to last the winter; maybe it’s my year to get that ten-pointer.”
His columns relate stories that are scrounged, befitting of a coyote’s luck and cunning, from his rambles around the state’s least populated counties.  As in his column from October 17, 2007, which describes his willingness to “make do with whatever is at hand.  From wearing a dead man’s clothes to picking up discarded wooden guardrails and splitting them lengthwise to use as bridge planks….” He calls it “back road conservation,” this act of browsing and selecting from the discards and blow-aways of the byways.
It seems this same kind of beachcombing ethic directs the way his column accrues: It can begin with a letter from the State Police about his reported stolen guns.  Or it might start out as a note to self:  “Never trust a car that has sat for two months in the winter without being driven.”  Sometimes a simple change in the length of daylight kicks off a riff that leads to a review of Chief’s horseradish and closes down with a roofing job finished in the chilly rain.
In My Antonia, a classic novel by Willa Cather, the narrator, speaking from the early twentieth century, tells us of his college studies, learning, ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas means “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”  He goes on to explain how his professor clarifies that the word “patria” didn’t mean nation, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.”
This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country,” to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”
When Mr. Lefebvre writes from his little rural neighborhood, telling us of the Great Piano Shootout at Mad Brook, recounting past basketball games as he waits for a truck loaded with firewood to find his driveway, or making another escape to camp, it seems there is a carefully meted out, lonely-proud howl rising out of these pages.
Masters of narrative say there are only two fundamental stories:  A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Somehow, each week, Paul Lefebvre finds a fusion of those archetypes, sending his readers a letter from a place where the dirt road meets the main road, “between church and religion; between marriage and love; and even between hill and town,” as he says in a column titled, “A People of In-Between.”
In this manner, simultaneously bold and devoutly humble, bent over his computer in Newark, Vermont, on most every Monday, Mr. Lefebvre escorts the Muse as he stands with one paw inside, one paw outside, straddling the perimeter, the rogue poet-King of the Upper Kingdom.
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