The Oxford Project

I spent the summer of 1983 at the University of Iowa, where I met my now ex-wife. Together, we moved back there in late summer of 1984. This was the early-middle Reagan years, and there were not a lot of jobs available. Despite whatever might have been happening elsewhere, the Reagan Recession was still in full swing. I remember once going to a hardware store to apply for the one job opening they had, and despite getting there early, there was a line out the door of guys, some likely way more well-informed about hardware, and a lot of them seriously hardbitten, out-of-work dudes who looked like they needed the job in a way that I’ve probably never known.

I filled out the application, but never heard a word.

I took a paper route with the Des Moines Register just to make some money. And then I applied for a route with the Iowa City Press-Citizen. I had experience. I’d worked as a relief driver for news dealers for the Washington Post for several years during high school and college, and it was a job I liked. Parenthetically, there are few better jobs for a writer than delivery jobs. I think it was in On Becoming a Novelist that John Gardner said that one of the best jobs a writer could get was a mail delivery route. Once you have the route memorized, something like muscle memory can take over, and then you get to spend long periods alone, thinking, dreaming, listening to the radio, but then you get to meet people, too, and a lot of times they’re folks you’d never have met in any other way. I used to drive down Route 80 and stop at a place called the Little Amanas, where there was a rack in a convenience store. There was a nice kid who worked there, like me, probably in his early 20’s. He worked behind the counter. He had a sort of angelic face, delicate, and very blond hair. And we’d chat a little every day. Then one day he was gone. I asked the next fellow where that guy had gone. Turned out he’d been beheaded in a car accident.

At that time, and maybe it still is, the Press-Citizen was an afternoon paper, except on Saturdays when we delivered in the morning; there was no Sunday paper. So you got to meet the people you delivered papers to.

One of the places I delivered papers was the town of Oxford, a drive a dozen or more miles down Route 6 from Iowa City through Coralville, and then into Oxford. I always stopped at Mary and Al Wyborny’s Oxford Trustworthy Hardware, then the gas station, where there were a couple of racks to fill. To this day I can’t remember the name of the gas station, because I put it into my second novel, and that false memory, at least in terms of words (the mental pictures are still there) had crowded out the real memory.

And so, late last year, I stumbled across this review of And so, late last year, I stumbled across this review of The Oxford Project in the Philadelphia Inquirer that stopped me in my tracks. I went to the gallery at Welcome Books and stared at the photographs, hoping to see some of the people I had known, many of whom had surely died in the intervening years. And then my wife bought me the book for Christmas.

I spent most of the day in the book, looking at the photographs and reading the short snippets of the lives that people had offered. The thing that hit me instantly was that while I had met these people, and seen these people and interacted with these people, I had never known them. The book is as good as or better than a lot of novels I’ve read. It’s the story of a small American town during a period in which small American towns were (it seems to me) becoming more relevant for whatever iconic value outsiders could paste on them and way less relevant for the people who lived and worked there.

The revelations are brutal and frank and sweet and sometimes massively depressing. Alcoholism is a constant theme. The sorrow of life is palpable, but also is the heroic foolishness of the human heart, faced as it is with its own sure extinction, beating on nonetheless.