Book review: "The Patron Saint of Dreams" is flat out good writing

Special to Lowcountry LifeApril 8, 2012 

The collection of narrative essays, "The Patron Saint of Dreams," by Philip Gerard, leaves me with a lot to be grateful for. I'm grateful to encounter a writer who is honest, clear-eyed, curious, skilled at his craft, and apparently not interested in going after the Really Big Stories, but willing to talk about the small things that matter to him. I'm also grateful that publishers still exist that recognize the value of such a writer and are willing to risk money on his work.

Hub City Press describes itself as "an independent press in Spartanburg that publishes well-crafted, high-quality works by new and established authors, with an emphasis on the Southern experience." With major institutions such as Borders, Blockbuster and Encyclopedia Britannica crashing on the rocks, we can be glad that some people who care about the craft of writing still survive.

I'm not trying to say that this is just a collection of small-scale essays with no real substance. Gerard's stories might not make headlines, but he has something to say. He lives in Wilmington, N.C., and the opening article tells in vivid detail what it is like to experience a major hurricane.

He begins with news of Tropical Storm Fran, which is building in force and might be headed his way. Wilmington has just been devastated by Bertha. As the storm picks up speed, he fills the bathtub, buys flashlights and batteries and canned goods and watches TV. He wants to rescue his boat, but where is it safe? And then it comes. "A hurricane does sound like a freight train. Exactly like."

He huddles in a neighbor's house, "drinking any liquor we can get our hands on," running back through the flying debris to check the house, clear the storm drain, pretend they are being useful. There has been torrential rain and tornados, and when it is over there is an awful heat, swarms of stinging bees, poisonous snakes, frogs and toads. And a sunken boat. Then the power goes off.

"What they don't tell you about a hurricane is that it just seems to go on and on ... they don't tell you how many ways it can break your heart."

There is a chapter about his brief career in the minor leagues as a baseball player, but he couldn't hit the curve ball. He tells about watching his mother die, and about the time he almost died, alone, in grizzly bear country -- that story is interspersed with vivid descriptions of a camping trip. "The fear -- the actual terror -- was something I still couldn't wrap my mind around..."

He tells the long, tragic story of a sailing boat that crashed on the rocks outside Charleston Harbor, and of the hours three boys fought hopelessly for their lives; of the men who failed them and of the bitter trial that followed. "This story is about the nature of doom," he writes. "Of how it masquerades as a lark, luring us on ... until we have blundered onto dangerous ground ... ultimately, for me, this story is about navigating that treacherous middle ground ... "

He describes a drunken evening with a famous poet; and explores the mystery of a man who died in a small North Carolina town who might have been Napoleon's most trusted general. He ponders moments in which he may have experienced ghostly visitations that seem to defy easy explanations, or indeed any explanations at all. He describes almost unbearable interviews with men whose wartime experiences bring them to tears even decades later.

Near the end he writes, "I believe in the writer as a witness to evil, as a reporter of injustice, as a chronicler of human compassion ... I believe it is the job of a writer to put into words what is worst -- and also what is best -- about us ..." This he has done, and with considerable skill.

Gerard has written four nonfiction books, two novels, edits a literary magazine, and is chairman of the department of creative writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington.

As one critic put it, "That boy can flat write."

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